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Move to lower safety requirements at Canada’s most at-risk port sparks concern for Northern Gateway commitments

January 22, 2015

As an intervenor in the Northern Gateway process, Living Oceans heard a lot of assurances from Enbridge about how the Great Bear Sea and its communities would be protected from oil tankers making upwards of 800 trips per year to and from Kitimat. Many of the most important promises—like speed restrictions to protect whales from being struck and killed—aren’t required by law and won’t be enforced by the National Energy Board. So we reached out to an East Coast community that has been dealing with oil tanker traffic for decades, to see how safety assurances played out there. What we found is truly alarming.

Marine pilots answer nearly a thousand duty calls each year in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. That port handles more oil tanker traffic than any other in Canada, as it serves Newfoundland’s offshore oil rigs as well as tankers from around the world. Home to an oil refinery, a major oil transshipment terminal and a nickel processing facililty, Placentia Bay also supports commercial and recreational fisheries and tourism. The bay has the largest spawning stock of cod in the northwest Atlantic and it’s an important feeding area for sea birds and mammals including humpback whales.

Transport Canada assessed the oil spill risk at Placentia Bay as the highest in the country: they said the port would see a major spill once in 27 to 33 years. Although the approach to the port is much less complicated than the approach to Kitimat, Placentia Bay is plagued by fog and North Atlantic storms. In 1990 safety measures were recommended to lower the risk. One of the most important of those measures was designating the area “restricted waters”, requiring pilots to board all ships before they enter the bay. Extensive public consultation and an expert review done from 2006 to 2010 recommended extending the boundary of the restricted waters even further, and leaving the pilot boarding station at its present location. Transport Canada concurred.

Map of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.

Now, the Crown corporation responsible for pilotage, the Atlantic Pilotage Authority, wants to move the pilot boarding station inside the restricted waters of Placentia Bay and Transport Canada appears to be going along with it. The reason? Cost. It takes time to board a pilot and time is money to a busy oil company. This move would exempt an estimated 70 percent of the shipping traffic from bringing a pilot onboard at the current boarding station. These ships would board a pilot 20 km further in the bay.

The pilots say it’s too dangerous. The busy shipping lane is only a half-mile wide inside the bay. There would be no maneuvering room, especially in bad weather; and the proposed location for the boarding station is too near rocky shores. There is, in short, no safety argument in favour of the move, and many arguments against it.

“If the federal government is willing to axe protection for the country’s most at-risk port so oil companies can save a buck, will it be equally lax with Enbridge’s safety commitments for the proposed Northern Gateway tanker route?” asked Karen Wristen, Executive Director of Living Oceans. “They can’t keep saying ‘world class tanker safety’ while reducing the actual, on-the-water protection measures for the convenience of the shipping industry and think we won’t notice.”

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