Oil tanker series let critics overstate impact of harbour spill

Letter writer John Hunter argues it's ridiculous to estimate the costs of a spill here based on the BP spill in the Gulf.

Dear Editor:

I commend your team on the excellent and largely accurate three-part series Oil & Water regarding the potential increase in crude oil tankers in Vancouver harbour.  Unfortunately the second part examining the effects of a spill contained numerous unchallenged errors by interviewees.

Firstly, Rex Weyler’s claim that bitumen hitting the water separates into gases and creates a toxic cloud is sheer fiction.  If he meant diluted bitumen (“dilbit”), it is still a misleading statement, in my opinion.  Some of the light diluent will evaporate, but it is harmful only if people stay in the area downwind for some time.  Significant exposure can cause nausea, headaches, and respiratory problems, and people may need to leave the area, depending on the situation.  Over a few days, the fumes dissipate.  Like table salt, which is toxic above certain limits, it’s all about the dose.  As to the threat of toluene and benzene, their concentration in dilbit is less than one per cent, or one-thirtieth of that in the gasoline you pour into your lawn mower.

The oil sinks to the bottom, Wyler claims.  Some heavy crudes such as Mexican Maya may sink to the bottom of a fresh water body, but typical Canadian bitumen should not in either fresh water (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conclusion) or especially in our denser salt water.  However, the final result depends on the crudes shipped, and a turbulent fresh water river could cause such problems.  I recommend Weyler read the U.S. EPA report on pipelining dilbit for the Keystone Project, Volume 2 (http://keystonepipeline-xl.state.gov/documents/organization/182068.pdf, page 3.13-31).

Mr. Weyler says he based his $40 billion number for an oil spill cleanup “here” by comparing our situation to somebody’s estimated $50 billion cleanup cost for the BP offshore oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.  He might as well compare it to the cost of a space shuttle flight; it’s total apples and oranges.

Let’s look at the differences between our situation and that incident.

First, there have been serious blowouts on oil platforms; in a century of tankers in B.C. waters there has never been a major spill, even in the half century before radar, electronic depth finders, GPS, tethered tugs, double hulls and coastal pilots on our tankers.

Second, a double-hulled Aframax tanker moving at five knots with tethered tugs in Vancouver Harbour has the safety feature of 10-14 individual tanks; even if the total tanker load were leaked (an impossibility in my view), it would be 12 per cent of the BP blowout of five million barrels.

Third, the BP leak was 5,000 feet deep, and unlike a tanker, had an unknown ultimate volume of oil escaping at high pressure and could only be inspected by remote submarines.

Fourth, the Gulf spill continued for over three months; oil is not left pouring out of a grounded tanker in Vancouver Harbour for months.

Even Exxon Valdez, a tanker carrying twice the load of our Aframax tankers, which hit a reef at 18 knots and ruptured eight of 11 tanks, cost “only” $4.3 billion for cleanup and compensation (excluding punitive damages) in an extremely cold and remote area with no initial cleanup capability.  In my view, Weyler’s $40 billion claim is ridiculous.

His statements implying that tanker owners can escape liability have already been debunked by others interviewed for this article.

Coleen Doucette of The Oiled Wildlife Society of B.C. claims there are no laws forcing oil spillers to respond to oiled wildlife.  This is a half truth.  The Environment Canada website for the 1990 National Policy on Oiled Birds allows the Canadian Wildlife Service to take over oiled bird operations if the polluter is not doing an adequate job, charge them the costs of cleanup, investigate the incident, and take legal action.  She also claims that bitumen “burns the skin dramatically” – this too is false (Syncrude Bitumen Material Safety Data Sheet, page 2) unless it is hot as in a refining process.  Cold bitumen may produce moderate skin irritation.

Lastly, the unidentified person who commented that the port has handled oil tanker traffic for more than 50 years is half right.  It’s nearly a century, since Imperial Oil opened Ioco Refinery about 1915.

There is room for debate, and errors in information will occur, but let’s try to stick to the facts, and skip the hyperbole.

John Hunter, P. Eng.North Vancouver

Note: Hunter is a semi-retired chemical engineer who worked in the energy industry, including heavy oil, oil sands and petroleum refining in Canada, Venezuela, Mexico and Asia for over 40 years.

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