Fraser River would take up to five years to recover from pipeline rupture

Kinder Morgan study estimates where oil would go

The environmental recovery from a “full bore” oil pipeline rupture into the lower Fraser River could take up to five years.

That’s according to a study done as part of Kinder Morgan’s planning for its proposed $5.4-billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

The study examined the environmental impact of a spill of 1.25 million litres of diluted bitumen into the Fraser River just below the Port Mann Bridge.

If the spill occurred from May to July, during high flows on the Fraser, the oil would largely miss nearby environmentally sensitive areas such as Sturgeon Banks in Richmond and Roberts Bank near Tsawwassen and be carried all the way across the Strait of Georgia to the Gulf Islands as well as sweeping around to Point Roberts, Wash., just south of Tsawwassen, the study predicted.

The study, which includes the experience from spills such as the 2010 Enbridge spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, assumes that oil from a pipeline rupture adjacent to railyards on the south side of the Fraser, a few hundreds metres from the shoreline, would flow through culverts and ditches directly into the river.

Most of the oil in a June spill would travel to the river mouth in one day and more would remain on the surface, compared with a spill in winter when river flows are low and more oil would collect on the shoreline.

River flows range from between 7,000 and 12,000 cubic metres a second in June, while winter flows are 2,000 cubic metres a second or lower.

The study estimates that “the process of restoration and recovery (to pre-spill condition) could take anywhere from 12 months to five years,” depending on the area affected and that “a considerable amount of the spilled oil” would become stranded along shorelines.

Project manager Greg Toth said in an interview Tuesday from Calgary that the company used horizontal directional drilling during replacement of the existing 24-inch pipeline about 12 years ago, just downstream of Port Mann Bridge. The pipeline run about 35 metres below the deepest part of the river.

The new 36-inch line would be installed using a similar process, although the exact location is up in the air after protests over the proposed use of Colony Farm Regional Park in Port Coquitlam as a staging area.

Toth said it would take about 15 minutes to recognize a full-bore rupture had happened and shut down the pipeline. He noted that the study is intended to show how oil would behave after a spill and does not taken into account emergency spill-response and cleanup measures that could speed up recovery.

“With any kind of pipeline there is an element of risk,” he noted. “Any spill is of very significant consequence.”

He noted the risks can be reduced in higher-risk areas such as near the Fraser River through measures such as “heavier-wall pipe,” location of valves to reduce the amount of oil that might spill, and burying the pipe deeper.

“A lot of our focus will be on preventing the spill from occurring.”

In a summer spill, the probability of oil floating on the Fraser River surface would exceed 90 per cent between Port Mann Bridge and a point downstream of the George Massey Tunnel, 60 to 80 per cent from there to the river mouth, and 40 per cent in the side channels and marshes near Ladner and Port Guichon, the study estimated.

The chance of shoreline oiling is 60 to 100 per cent along the south shore of the river between Port Mann Bridge and the upstream end of Annacis Island, 40 to 60 per cent along the west and south shorelines of Annacis Island and along the north shoreline of the Fraser River from the lower end of Annacis Island to the tunnel, 20 to 40 per cent along the balance of the main channel, and less than 10 per cent in the side channels and wetlands near Ladner and Port Guichon.

Beyond the river mouth, the oil is predicted to disperse “with considerable momentum” to the north or south and “affect shorelines on the opposite side” of the Strait of Georgia.

The study concludes there is “potential for reed beds and salt marsh vegetation to trap floating or submerged oil” and that “oil spill recovery effects may be equally damaging (as oil) to the vegetation.” Fish kills in the main stem of the river are unlikely due to high water flows.

Mortality could be high for waterfowl such as ducks and geese using the lower Fraser, including oiling of eggs, and “these effects could extend along the entire river channel, as well as affecting portions of the Delta.”

Seabirds further out into the strait would also be affexted, however most migratory birds such as sandpipers would already be on their northern nesting grounds. Marine mammals such as otter, mink, beaver and muskrat could be heavily affected, less so larger animals such as raccoons and deer.

Last month, environmentalists, with financial support from the City of Vancouver, released hundreds of plywood drift cards on the lower Fraser River in an experiment to simulate the dispersion of a pipeline oil spill.

Coastal residents who find the cards are asked to report the date and location to help researchers calculate where oil from a spill might wind up over what period of time and along what route.

Although past card tests have shown Victoria to be especially vulnerable to a spill along the Kinder Morgan tanker route, some have travelled widely along the coast, including to Cape Scott off northern Vancouver Island and farther north to Haida Gwaii.

Kinder Morgan’s expansion project involves about 987 kilometres of new pipeline, new and modified facilities, such as pump stations and tanks, and the redevelopment of 193 kilometres of existing pipeline, along with expansion of the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby.

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