Trevor Hancock: Is the Kinder Morgan pipeline really a health hazard in B.C.?

The B.C. government has declared its intention to do everything in its power to stop the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, a position I wholeheartedly support.

In the interest of furthering that aim, I have a suggestion for another mechanism the government might want to use: Declare the project a health hazard or health impediment under B.C.’s Public Health Act. It is important to recognize that health is a provincial responsibility under the Constitution.

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The act defines a health hazard as something that “endangers, or is likely to endanger, public health,” while a health impediment is defined in the act as something “the cumulative effects of which, over a period of time, are likely to adversely affect public health.”

Note that in both cases, the scale of the impact is not a factor, and the effect does not have to be completely proven before action is taken; rather, one has to show only that the something is likely to endanger or adversely affect the health of the public, and in the case of an impediment, that the impact is cumulative over time.

Note also that health is defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of complete physical, mental or social well-being,” and that we understand that health is determined by a wide range of societal conditions and by the “health” of the ecosystems that sustain us. So the question is, is the project likely to endanger or adversely affect over time the physical, mental or social well-being of people in B.C.?

So what do we know or suspect about the health impacts of the pipeline expansion? A May 2015 report headed by Tim Takaro, a specialist in occupational and environmental medicine and professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, reviewed what was known about the major human health impacts.

The authors began by noting that at that time, “the most profound human health impacts of the proposed expansion,” namely the global health impacts of climate change, “have been administratively removed from consideration by the National Energy Board.”

So they dealt with “other health impacts that are also underestimated … in the proposal,” notably the risks posed by two known human carcinogens — benzene and 1,3-butadiene — that are found in crude oil and in the diluted bitumen the pipeline will transport. They also considered the potential health impacts of a spill in Burrard Inlet.

Overall, they concluded: “The proposal does not adequately assess the human health risks posed by the proposed expansion”; the Stephen Harper-appointed NEB, not surprisingly, accepted pretty much every aspect of Kinder Morgan’s own assessment of the health impacts of its proposal.

We should also consider the impact of a major spill from a tanker in B.C.’s coastal waters, which would adversely affect the way of life, diet, and mental and social well-being of the many people who depend on the ocean.

And we know from a belated report in November 2016 from Environment and Climate Change Canada (repairing the deliberate omission of this by the NEB), that the additional “upstream” greenhouse gas emissions (due to extraction, processing and refining of crude oil that would be carried by the pipeline) could be from 13 to 15 megatonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent per year.

Given that Environment Canada already admitted in April 2017 that the country will not meet its 2030 target of 523 megatonnes, this additional 2.5 to three per cent will not help. And it will add to global emissions that are already having health impacts, including in B.C.

For all these reasons, it seems to me there is a good case to be made that the pipeline expansion is likely to harm the health of B.C.’s population.

Under the Public Health Act, the minister of health must — not may, but must — inquire into the situation if the population of B.C. faces a health hazard or health impediment. Cabinet can designate something a health impediment. And if a health hazard or impediment exists, the government is empowered to take action, including by regulation, to prevent or reverse it.

It is hard to see how the Trudeau government would argue that the national interest should overrule such a situation.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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