Every morning, starting around 7 am, the Spirit of Vancouver Island leaves its berth in Swartz Bay for its first run to Tsawwassen. On-board the Spirit are tens of thousands of liters of diesel fuel to run the ship for the day. On her car decks the Spirit carries around 400 cars and a dozen or more transport trucks, each carrying tanks of gasoline or diesel fuel. Starting in Swartz Bay, the Spirit sails through the incredibly tight shipping lanes of the Gulf Islands, through Active Pass (a notoriously treacherous passage), through the active shipping lanes of the Strait of Georgia (all home to the endangered J-pod of resident BC Orcas) to the Tsawwassen Ferry terminal situated near environmentally fragile eelgrass beds that provide a habitat for countless small fish and the protected Pacific flyway. The ferry carrying hundreds of cars and trucks and thousands of people makes this trip numerous times daily without the support of any rescue tugs. Even scarier are the hazardous goods runs they do late at night where, in the dark, through this treacherous route, the ferries transport tens of thousands of liters of goods too dangerous to transport with civilians on-board.
You might ask why am I talking about ferries? The answer is because from a marine risk assessment perspective this route is a nightmare. The number of potential risks to human health and the environment are almost countless: spills, collisions, narrow passages, charted and uncharted rocks, engine loss all are potential outcomes from each trip and yet given the tremendous risk to human health and the environment our government has not cancelled this run to evaluate its continued safety to the coastal marine ecosystem. Just look at this link a colleague provided me of the August, 1970 splicing of Queen of Victoria by Soviet freighter Sergey Yesenin in Active Pass. Yet this week our provincial government announced that they are proposing a freeze on increases in the transportation of dilute bitumen (dilbit) partially based on the risks associated with the project. This caused me to think about risk and marine transport.
As I mentioned in my previous post, my job involves investigating and remediating contaminated sites. As part of my job, I also carry out the due diligence risks assessments to evaluate the risks posed by contaminated sites to human and ecological health. I evaluate risks every day but not the way most look at risk, I’m responsible for putting a number on risk, or more specifically, putting a number on the hazard a chemical poses to ecological health to determine if the risk is acceptable or unacceptable. There is an entire science to this task and I have spent a lot of time at this blog explaining how we do this. At the bottom of this post is a summary I have prepared that gives readers a chance to go through those posts at their leisure.
One of the first things you learn in studying risk assessment is that there is no such thing as an activity with zero risk. In everything we do we encounter risks. When we get in the car we put on our seat-belts; before our kids get on the ice they put on their helmets; before my daughters play soccer they put on their shin-pads. All these are tools used to reduce the risk of typical day-to-day activities. Industrial activities are no exception. Pipelines run the risks of leaks, tankers run the risks of spills and that is something we have to accept as part of living in a modern industrialized country. Using safety processes and procedures we work hard to minimize those risks but we can’t eliminate them in their entirety. But unless our government has a plan to eliminate the use of fossil fuels virtually overnight we will need to transport fossil fuels and pipelines are the safest way to transport fossil fuels overland. If the government succeeds in stopping the pipeline all they will have done is increased our risk of a major fossil fuel spill. As for the absolute safest way to transport fossil fuels, that would be modern, double-walled tankers.
Going back to the BC coast, while the BC Ferries pose a pretty significant risk, far more frightening, from a marine spill perspective, are the daily barge runs that move fuels from Vancouver and the refineries in the Puget Sound to keep Vancouver Island supplied with the diesel and gasoline necessary to keep its communities alive. These barges run on odd schedules, through good weather and bad and are never accompanied by two marine rescue tugs. Has our provincial government blocked the movement of these barges? Of course not! Even worse, look at those fuel barges going up the coast. Does the Nathan E Stewart ring a bell? As I have written previously, the provincial government has essentially ignored this risk for decades and failed to put in the money necessary to ensure a reasonable spill response. So when our current government says it wants to investigate expanded dilbit transportation (a hypothetical future risk) while ignoring a real, pressing and much more significant existing risk, you are left to wonder if it is really politics rather than a concern for the environment that is causing them to make this decision.
On another front, as I write this blog post the port of Vancouver is engaged in a public consultation process about plans to increase the size of Delta Port. This at a port that currently has approximately 23,000 ship movements a year and is looking to add an estimated 5000+ more ship movements if all the future upgrades are included. This dwarfs the 720 additional ship movements associated with the Trans Mountain expansion (TMX).
Now unlike the Port, the fuel barges or the BC Ferries, the NEB required a detailed risk analysis of the TMX. The critical document on this topic is the report Termpol 3.15 – General Risk Analysis and intended methods of reducing risk which evaluated the risks of the project. It concluded that “with effective implementation of risk reducing measures most of the incremental risk resulting from the project can be eliminated“. To put a number on it:
- Without the project the risk of a credible worst case oil spill is estimated in 1 in every 3093 years….If all the risk reducing measures discussed in this report are implemented the frequency will be one in every 2366 years.
- This means that after the Project is implemented, provided all current and future proposed risk control measures are implemented, the increased risk of a credible worst case oil spill in the study area from the Trans Mountain tanker traffic will be only 30% higher than the risk of such an occurrence if the Project did not take place.
By increasing the number of tankers by 7 times, but also implementing the changes that were ultimately mandated by the NEB, the risk of a spill is less than one event every 2000 years. So no, the risk does not increase by 7 times, it increases by barely 30% and 30% more of almost zero remains almost zero. Essentially they are saying that the project provides no significant increase in risk over those risks we accept every day (what I refer to as a de minimis risk below). In exchange for a negligible increase in risk we get economic prosperity and the economic health and goodwill of our neighbouring provinces. The dollars generated by this project are what pay for our health care and social services.
Certainly the government could try to make a case that the risks posed by the TMX (one accident every 2000+ years) may be too high for the benefits incurred. But that is not the argument they, or the opponents of the pipeline, have been making. They argue that BC should not incur any risk to compensate for our current level of prosperity. The problem is that our current level of prosperity is a direct result of our national union. To suggest that we accept no risk, in a world where we balance every other risk out there, is simply not a legitimate argument to make.Arguing that the TMX poses too much risk while simultaneously refusing to fund improved spill response in the Central BC Coast is the epitome of hypocrisy. It shows that the ban is not risk-based but simply political in nature. The opponents of the pipeline need to enumerate the risks and explain why the de minimis increase in risk associated with the pipeline is not worth the improvement in the quality of life it provides to British Columbians and Albertans alike.
Addendum on Risk and Toxicity
I have written a lot at this blog about how risk is communicated to the public and I have prepared a series of posts to help me out in situations like this. The posts start with “Risk Assessment Methodologies Part 1: Understanding de minimis risk” which explains how the science of risk assessment establishes whether a compound is “toxic” and explains the importance of understanding dose/response relationships. It explains the concept of a de minimis risk. That is a risk that is negligible and too small to be of societal concern (ref). The series continues with “Risk Assessment Methodologies Part 2: Understanding “Acceptable” Risk” which, as the title suggests, explains how to determine whether a risk is “acceptable”. I then go on to cover how a risk assessment is actually carried out in “Risk Assessment Methodologies Part 3: the Risk Assessment Process. I finish off the series by pointing out the danger of relying on anecdotes in a post titled: Risk Assessment Epilogue: Have a bad case of Anecdotes? Better call an Epidemiologist.