The Trouble with Tankers

🕔Dec 01, 2011

Kyle Clifton folds his large, 6’1” frame into the tiny Cessna 185 and his arms across his chest. He appears anxious.

Born and raised in Hartley Bay, he admits he even gets motion sickness on the ocean, despite spending summers growing up on fishing boats. But as we head south, leaving behind the Terrace airport and then Kitimat, any apprehension quickly fades as we coast out over Douglas Channel and traditional Gitga’at territory.

Soon, Clifton is twisting in his cramped seat, taking in the 360-degree views surrounding his hometown, population 160. “I’m texting my sister,” he says excitedly, looking down at the tiny coastal community.

Flying in small aircraft isn’t the only thing that makes Clifton nervous. Kitimat marks the western end of the proposed Enbridge pipeline, a project designed to transport bitumen from the Alberta oilsands across northern BC to waiting tankers that would carry it to Asian markets. With Hartley Bay directly on the tanker route, fears of an oil spill—something opposition groups say is just a matter of time—plague the community. As a result, the Gitga’at is just one of many First Nations speaking out against the project over the threat it poses to their traditional lifestyle.

“Most places are economy first and everything else second. For us, it’s about saving the resources first. Without the resources, we have nothing,” Clifton says. “The Enbridge pipeline scares the hell out of us. It’s making us live in fear already, and it’s not even here.”

Clifton’s fears aren’t unsubstantiated. In 2006, commuter ferry the Queen of the North sank when it hit Gil Island, just off Hartley Bay, and for two years contamination concerns from leaking fuel prevented local residents from harvesting clams—a substantial part of their diet. Nearby King Pacific Lodge, a floating luxury fishing lodge that provides about 50 percent of the community’s employment, has already threatened to pull up anchor and move out if the pipeline goes through.

Stormy seas
We’re flying courtesy of Lighthawk, an organization that provides volunteer pilots and donated flights to conservation groups. Environmental organization ForestEthics took the opportunity to fly First Nations representatives over their territories and capture professional photographs of northern BC’s stunning landscapes along the pipeline route.

Crammed into the back of the Cessna with me is ForestEthics senior energy campaigner Nikki Skuce. After flying over the pipeline’s western end the evening before, we’ve now joined Clifton to explore the proposed tanker route.

When we arrived at the airport early this morning, pilot Steven Garman greeted us with a shake of his head—until the weather turned, strong winds and poor visibility would make it impossible to fly over Douglas Channel. Instead, we got back in the car and drove south toward Kitimat and adjacent Haisla community Kitamaat Village, where we found former Haisla councillor Gerald Amos on his boat, the Suncrest.

For Amos, the weather is predictable: harsh conditions typify Douglas Channel, where temperatures drop to -16ºC and winter winds blow snow sideways, whipping up waves across the channel and lifting fog over the relatively warm water. It’s one of his greatest concerns regarding tanker traffic: big winds and big waves creating treacherous nautical conditions.

The boat rocks gently as Amos looks across a wind-whipped channel toward the proposed tanker terminal site just around the corner, and tells us a little about the community’s history.

The Haisla people are no strangers to bureaucratic indifference. The community has suffered the region’s highest cancer rates since aluminum producer Alcan began operating in Kitimat more than 60 years ago. The company used Agent White, a cousin of the infamous Agent Orange, along the power lines to keep weeds down. PCBs found in the water here resulted in a 25-year ban on crab harvesting within 12 kilometres of Kitimat.

As well, Amos blames bottom trawling and water contamination for decline of the oolichan, a small fish whose oil was traditionally traded among First Nations. The Haisla Nation, 40 kilometres north of Hartley Bay, is a traditional trading partner with the Gitga’at.

“Our access to our food is being chipped away. Food security is huge for me,” says Amos. “The bottom line is, government and industry really aren’t concerned with the environmentalists. The Haisla and Hartley Bay, they are the ones that can stop this pipeline.”

Amos recently spoke out against the pipeline and resulting tanker traffic at a community meeting in Rupert, swearing he’d lie down in front of bulldozers before allowing the pipeline through Haisla territory. Of the more than 500 in the room, roughly half stood up in solidarity, he says.

“They said, ‘I want you to know, I’d be behind you,’” he chuckles with his contagious laugh. “I said, ‘No, I want you to be in front of me.’”

Timeless traditions
It’s mid-afternoon when we get back to Terrace Airport. The ceiling has lifted—just slightly—and Garman hesitantly makes the call: We’ll fly out over Douglas Channel toward the Pacific Ocean. Garman’s three passengers pile in with some trepidation and sit silently as the small plane takes flight.

Flying beyond Kitimat and out over the 90-kilometre-long Douglas Channel, clouds hover just above us, reflected in the silvery tongues that wind their way amongst rocky shoals and towering outcrops—tidal inlets stretching kilometres into untouched wilderness.

“All these small islands are totally beautiful, but you could also see it would be really difficult to navigate through there with an oil tanker, particularly in stormy weather,” Skuce says. “The choppy water—that’s common west coast weather.”

Just as the ocean would move bitumen to China, it could also carry oil slicks into every inlet and channel along the northwest coast. Clifton’s stories about finding Coke bottles with Chinese writing and glass balls from Asian fishing boats are a testament to the power of Pacific currents.

“First Nations’ territories are vast and what’s at risk is huge,” Skuce says. “An oil spill would completely devastate the Gitga’at and the Haisla and, really, what company has a right to do that?”

We fly over traditional Kiel Village, where thousands of years of Gitga’at discarding shells have turned the beach white; then we pass over Kishkosh, used by the Gitga’at as cockle clamming beds for countless generations. Clifton’s stories come faster than I can record them; his knowledge of the area is immense. He tells us the history of each island, before excitedly looking ahead to the next and the next and the next…

“You don’t realize how much you know until you have to teach it to someone,” he says. “I like showing people this kind of stuff.”

Before long, we’ve reached Hecate Straight and the Pacific Ocean, some 200 kilometres from Terrace. Circling back, pilot Steven Garman tenses. Although the ceiling lifted over the coast, we have to duck under low cloud cover to find our way back.

Meanwhile, his three passengers relax. The return trip is a quieter one, each of us staring out the Cessna’s small windows, lost in our own thoughts. The pristine northwest coast, which hosts bears, sea lions, salmon, shellfish and a vast web of ecology that has sustained local culture beyond memory, stretches below us.

Despite a sometimes bumpy ride, it’s a place, as Gerald Amos says, worth lying down in front of bulldozers to protect.

This is the second in a two-part series about the potential effects of transporting oil through the North. In the last issue of Northword, Amanda Follett looked at the fragile ecosystems that lay along the proposed Enbridge pipeline route.