Enbridge files massive river oil spill study with the Joint Review Panel

Kitimat River map from Enbridge study
A Google Earth satellite map of the Kitimat River used as part of Enbridge Northern Gateway’s oil spill modelling study.

Enbridge Northern Gateway today filed a massive 11-volume study with the Joint Review Panel outlining possible scenarios for oil spills along the route including the Kitimat and Morice Rivers in British Columbia.

The study, carried out by three consulting firms, Stantec Consuting and AMEC Environmental & Infrastructure both of Calgary and RPS ASA of Rhode Island, is called “Ecological and Human Health Assessment for Pipeline spills.”

Overall the models created by study appear to be extremely optimistic, especially in light of recent events, such as the damning report on by the US
National Transportation Safety Board and the finding of violations by the US Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration with Enbridge operations during the 2010 Marshall, Michigan, spill and subsequent cleanup difficulties encountered by Enbridge.

The executive summary of the report begins by saying

This document presents conservatively developed assessments of the acute and chronic risk to ecological and human receptors in the unlikely event of a full bore pipeline break on the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project. Three representative hydrocarbon types (condensate, synthetic oil
and diluted bitumen) were evaluated with releases occurring to four different rivers representing a range of hydrological and geographic characteristics, under both low-flow and high-flow conditions. The analysis indicates that that the potential environmental effects on ecological and human health from each hydrocarbon release scenario could be adverse and may be significant. However, the probability of the releases as considered in the assessment (i.e., full bore rupture, with no containment or oil recovery) is low, with return periods for high consequence watercourses ranging from 2,200 to 24,000 years. Therefore, the significant adverse environmental effects as described in this report are not likely to occur.

So the study says that it is “conservative” that means optimistic, that a full bore pipelink break with no containment or recovery is “an unlikely event” and would probably occur every 2,200 and 24,000 years. Not bad for a pipeline project that is supposed to be operational for just 50 years.

The summary does caution:

The analysis has also shown that the outcomes are highly variable and are subject to a great many factors including the location of the spill, whether the hydrocarbons are released to land or directly to a watercourse, the size of the watercourse, slope and flow volumes, river bed substrate, the amount of suspended particulate in the water, environmental conditions (such as the time of year, temperature and wind speeds, precipitation, etc.), the types of shoreline soils and vegetative cover and most significantly, the type and volume of hydrocarbon released.

The highly technical study is Enbridge’s official response to those intervenors who have “requested additional ecological and human health risk assessment studies pertaining to pipeline spills” and a request from the Joint Review Panle for more information about “the long term effects of pipeline oil spills on aquatic organisms (including the sensitivity of the early life stages of the various salmon species), wildlife, and human health.”

The report presents modelling on the release of three hydrocarbons, diluted bitumen, synthetic oil and condensate at four river locations along the pipeline route for their potential ecological and human health effects, under two flow regimes (i.e., high and low flow), broadly representing summer and winter conditions.

Modelling was done for four areas:

• Chickadee Creek: a low gradient interior river tributary discharging to a large river system
located up-gradient from a populated centre within the Southern Alberta Uplands region
• Crooked River: a low gradient interior river with wetlands, entering a lake system within
the Interior Plateau Region of British Columbia
• Morice River: a high gradient river system along the western boundary of the Interior
Plateau Region of British Columbia
• Kitimat River near Hunter Creek: a high gradient coastal tributary discharging to a large
watercourse with sensitive fisheries resources, downstream human occupation, and discharging to the Kitimat River estuary

In one way, the study also appears to be a partial victory for the Kitimat group Douglas Channel Watch because the model for the Kitimat River is based on a spill at Hunter Creek, which has been the subject of extensive work by the environmental group, but the consulting study is markedly optimistic compared to the scenario painted by Douglas Channel Watch in its presentations to District of Kitimat council.

The study describes the Kitimat River:

The hypothetical release location near Hunter Creek is southwest of Mount Nimbus, in the upper Kitimat  River watershed, and flows into Kitimat River, then Kitimat Arm, approximately 65 km downstream. The area is in a remote location and maintains high wildlife and fisheries values. The pipeline crossing near Hunter Creek is expected to be a horizontal direction drilling (HDD) crossing. The release scenario
assumes a discharge directly into Kitimat River…

The streambed and banks are composed of coarse gravel, cobbles and boulders. Shoreline vegetation (scattered grasses and shrubs) occurs in the channel along the tops of bars. Vegetation is scattered on the channel banks below the seasonal high water mark and more developed (i.e., grasses, shrubs and trees) bove the seasonal high water mark.

Wildlife and fish values for the Kitimat River are high: it is important for salmon stocks, which also provide important forage for grizzly bears, bald eagles and osprey on the central coast. The Kitimat River estuary, at the north end of Kitimat Arm, also provides year-round habitat for some waterbirds and seasonal habitat for staging waterfowl.

There is considerable recreational fishing, both by local people and through fishing guides, on Kitimat River, its estuary and in Kitimat Arm. There is also likely to be a high amount of non-consumptive recreational activity in the area, including wildlife viewing, hiking and camping. The Kitimat River estuary, for example, is well known for waterbird viewing.

While no fish were captured at this location during the habitat survey, salmonoid fry and coho salmon were observed downstream. Previously recorded fish species in the area include chinook, coho and chum salmon, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, and steelhead trout.

However, the next paragraph appears to show that a full bore rupture on the Kitimat River would have widespread consequences because it would cover a vast area of First Nations traditional territory, saying

Aboriginal groups with traditional territories within the vicinity of the Kitimat River hypothetical spill scenario site include the Haisla Nation, Kitselas First Nation, Kitsumkalum First Nation, Lax-Kw’alaams First Nation and Metlakatla First Nation.

It also acknowledges:

Oral testimony provided by Gitga’at First Nation and Gitxaala Nation was also reviewed in relation to this hypothetical spill scenario, although the traditional territories of these nations are well-removed from the hypothetical spill site.

The report then goes on to list “the continued importance of traditional resources” for the aboriginal people of northwestern BC.

especially marine resources. People hunt, fish, trap and gather foods and plants throughout the area and traditional foods are central to feasting and ceremonial systems. Food is often distributed to Elders or others in the community. Written evidence and oral testimony reported that Coho, sockeye, pink, and spring salmon remain staples for community members. Halibut, eulachon, herring and herring roe,
various species of cod, shellfish, seaweed, and other marine life are also regularly harvested and consumed, as are terrestrial resources, including moose, deer, beaver, muskrat and marten. Eulachon remains an important trade item. Written evidence provides some information on seasonality of use and modes of preparation. Seaweed is dried, packed and bundled and preserved for later use. Each species of
salmon has its own season and salmon and other fish are prepared by drying, smoking, freezing or canning. Salmon are highly valued and often distributed throughout the community…

Some areas used traditionally are not depicted geographically. Upper Kitimat River from the Wedeene River to the headwaters has long been used for trapping, hunting, fishing and gathering of various foods. Fishing, hunting and gathering activities take place along the lower Kitimat River and its tributaries. Marine resources are collected in Kitimat Arm, Douglas Channel, and Gardner Canal. Old village and
harvesting sites are located along the rivers and ocean channels in this vicinity.

Intertidal areas are important and highly sensitive harvesting sites that support a diversity of species. Many intertidal sites are already over harvested and are therefore vulnerable. Conservation of abalone has been undertaken to help the species recover. Some concern was expressed in oral testimony regarding the
potential for archaeological sites and the lack of site inventory in the area. Oral testimony made reference to the Queen of the North sinking and the potential for a similar accident to result in human health and environmental effects.

A spill at Hunter Creek

The model says that all three types of floating oil in Kitimat River under high-flow conditions would reach approximately 40 kilometres downstream from Hunter Creek while low-flow conditions showed variation.

Under what the study calls low flow conditions, most condensate would evaporate. The bitumen would cause “heavy shore-oiling” for the first 10 kilometres, with some oiling up to 40 kilometres downstream.

The most sedimentation would occur for synthetic oil, and the least for condensate. Synthetic oil under both flow conditions would have the largest amounts deposited to the sediments. This is because of the low viscosity of synthetic oil, which allows it to be readily entrained into the water where it may combine with suspended sediments and subsequently settle. Synthetic oil under high-flow conditions would result in the most entrained oil and so the most extensive deposition to the sediment. Diluted bitumen, for both flow conditions, would result in the most deposited on shorelines, with the remainder (except that which evaporated or degraded) depositing to the sediments.
The condensate also would also have significant entrainment, but higher winds prevailing in under low flow conditions would enhance evaporation and rapidly lower concentrations in the water as compared to high-flow conditions. In all scenarios, a large amount of entrained oil and high concentrations of dissolved aromatics would move down the entire stretch of Kitimat River and into Kitimat River estuary.

Long term scenario

The modelling appears to be extremely optimistic when it reaches four to six weeks after the pipeline breach, especially in light of the continued cleanup efforts in Michigan, estimating that the “fast-flowing” nature of the Kitimat River would disipate all the different forms of hydrocarbon in the study saying

 a fast-flowing coastal river like Kitimat River, with gravel or cobble bottom would be affected by a large volume of crude oil released in a short period of time.

Oiling of shoreline soils is heavy in the reaches between the release point and 10 km downstream, becoming lighter to negligible beyond 10 km. Deposition of hydrocarbons to river sediment is greatest for the synthetic oil and diluted bitumen (high flow) scenarios extending up to 40 kilometres downriver, with predicted hydrocarbon concentrations in sediment approaching 1,000 mg/kg dry weight. Deposition of hydrocarbons to river sediment is considerably lighter for the diluted bitumen (low flow) and condensate scenarios. In these scenarios, oiling of river sediment is negligible….

It says that within four weeks of the end of the acute phase of the spill scenarios, concentrations in river sediments and river water would decline becoming quite low at the end of two years.

As for the affects on plants and invertebrates:

Oiling of shorelines would be extensive, particularly at assessment locations within 10 kilometres of the pipeline break location, under both the high and low flow scenarios, for synthetic oil and condensate. High loadings occur as far as 25 kilometres downstream, again asusming that damage would begin to disipate after four weeks declining over the next one to two years. Predicted effects are generally less severe for the diluted bitumen spill scenarios, due to lower expected loading of oil onto shorelines. Low to negligible shoreline oiling would occur for Kitimat River under most of the scenarios at the 40 kilometres assessment location and points downstream. Based on this assessment, very little oiling of shorelines would extend to the estuary and the environmental effects would be minimal.

The study goes on to say that the “model suggests that there would be no significant risk to fish health based upon chronic exposure to petroleum hydrocarbons  for the oil spill scenarios in Kitimat River or the potentially affected areas within the estuary, either at four weeks or one to two years following the hypothetical spill events. Risk to developing fish eggs in Kitimat River and estuary at four weeks and one to two years again indicate no significant risk to developing fish eggs in spawning gravels.”

It also claims that “chronic risks” to wildlife would be minimal, with some elevated risk for “muskrat, belted kingfisher, mallard duck, spotted sandpiper and tree swallow,” if they were exposed to synthetic oil. The muskrat, mallard duck and spotted sandpiper
could be vulnerable to bitumen and diluted bitumen.

It then claims that “no significant effects of chronic exposure (to all hydrocarbons) would occur for grizzly bear, mink, moose, river otter, bald eagle, Canada goose, herring gull or great blue heron for the Kitimat River hydrocarbon spill scenarios.”

Again, it appears from the sutdy that the spotted sandpiper would be most vulnerable to “bulk weathered crude oil exposure” includingcondensate, diluted bitumen and synthetic oil.

For the Kitimat section it concludes:

In the unlikely event of an oil spill, recovery and mitigation as well as the physical
disturbance of habitat along the watercourse would be likely to substantially reduce the exposure of wildlife receptors to hydrocarbons as compared to the scenarios evaluated here.

Link to Volume One of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Report Ecological and Human Health Assessment for Pipeline Spills