PORT HARDY—Emotions ran high last week as the Enbridge Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel arrived on the North Island and opened up its microphones to residents. And the full gamut of those emotions was on display during oral presentations at the Civic Centre.
“We should be capitalizing on this being supernatural British Columbia, not super tanker British Columbia,” marine biologist and environmentalist Jackie Hildering said, choking up near the end of her 10-minute presentation.
“This deal is already done,” seethed Jim MacDougall, former Alberta cop turned Sointula charter boat skipper from Sointula who immediately followed Hildering. “There’s been far too much money invested in the dirty tar sands and this pipeline to turn back. This deal will go through whether the people of B.C. want it or not.”
Another Sointula resident, artist Wendy Davis, turned to humour, reading the equivalent of a “Dear John” letter to spurn Enbridge’s advances. Not that she wasn’t flattered by the company’s attention, of course.
“Imagine that,” Davis said. “A proposal, at my age.”
The Enbridge proposal is a pipeline that would carry bitumen from the Alberta tar sands, or oil sands, to a terminal at Kitimat on the B.C. coast. From there, the crude would be loaded onto tankers to ply the waters of coastal B.C. before delivering the bitumen to Asia and other markets for eventual refining.
With sign- and banner-waving protesters stationed outside the Civic Centre, nearly 30 North Islanders of the 41 originally signed up to testify before the panel took their turns in front of the microphones during oral presentation sessions Tuesday evening and throughout Wednesday.
Across from the speakers sat the three members of the independent, government-mandated panel, which is tasked with gathering information from affected parties in both Alberta and B.C. before submitting a report of recommendations to government in 2013.
Behind them sat technicians recording the proceedings. Overhead, a projector displayed an image of the proposed pipeline route.
In Port Hardy, opposition to the project was nearly unanimous. Arguments against it centred around the environmental costs of a major tanker spill, and the lack of faith in a company still reeling from a major pipeline spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan last year and a smaller, but still devastating leak in Wisconsin earlier this summer.
“The potential losses that would result from a spill are simply the stuff of nightmares,” said Hildering. “And when something does go wrong, then what? It is my understanding that if there is a spill there would be, at best, 15 per cent recovery.
“And we can’t hope for the best.”
But the speakers, many of whom bore scientific degrees and credentials, went beyond the direct impacts to the environment to address the economic, social and cultural damage that would be caused by a major spill in coastal waters.
And others, like MacDougall, said the project is symptomatic of a government that is working hand-in-glove with big business and with no concern for the welfare of its citizens.
“We’ve heard talk about what’s in it for B.C., which is taking all the risks,” said MacDougall. “Well, it’s not jobs, and it’s not wealth. This is being pushed by big business for big profits for their shareholders. The federal government and the Alberta government are pushing this for maximum revenue.”
MacDougall drew a hearty round of applause when he closed by demanding that CEOs and other top executives of companies affiliated with the project — “from production to transport” — be required by law to surrender both business and personal assets to a cleanup fund should a major tanker spill or pipeline rupture occur.
“They are getting all the reward, and we are getting all the risks,” he said. “Big business should put their money where their mouth is and take some of the actual, true risks.”
Hildering, in her defence of the environment and the economic potential it provides through everything from tourism to research to quality of life, called out the government on its claim that any pipeline decision will be science-based, even while it is gutting funding or stifling scientific communications that oppose the Enbridge proposal and other, similar projects.
“The government is atrophying and removing the checks and balances that would allow the proper assessment of risks,” Hildering said. “Government bodies are made to work with industry rather than safeguard our natural resources … and environmental governmental organizations are more overwhelmed than ever as the result of these many attacks against science and the environment.”
Joint review panel members did not respond to the presenters, other than to politely thank them for their participation. But the opposition they heard to the pipeline, from First Nations, from scientists, from small businesses was almost unanimous.
During Tuesday’s presentations, former Port Hardy Mayor Russ Hellberg told the panel that he would welcome the project, albeit with a few caveats.
Describing the North Island as a “resource-based economy”, Hellberg said that many people in the area saw the proposal as a good opportunity to boost the region’s finances.
Hellberg saw the increased marine traffic that would result from the shipping of oil as a potentially huge boon to the coastal communities.
“My many years running a work clothes business has given me an insight into the mind of the working man,” he added, before re-emphasizing that he was one of many who looked forward to the opportunities that the pipeline would bring.
Unfortunately for Hellberg, it appeared few of his former clientele were present at the hearing as the discontented murmurs that followed his contribution grew to outright boos as the crowd sounded its disagreement.
The panel stepped in to return decorum, telling the assembled crowd that the purpose of the review was to hear all points of view, and that everyone’s opinion was valid and deserved to be heard.
There is one more opportunity for local voices to be heard, by submitting a letter of comment to the panel, although the August 31 deadline for submissions is looming.
For information on the rules governing letter submissions, or for general information on the panel, consult the government website at gatewaypanel.review-examen.gc.ca.
With files from Aidan O’Toole