Editorial: Time for serious emergency planning?

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by KORIE MARSHALL, EDITOR

A recent diesel spill near Mount Robson has got me thinking about the risks of pipelines in our valley.

The accident last week was a single vehicle, and it ended up on the high side of the highway. Some fuel leaked into the Fraser River, because there culverts intended to let water pass under the highway, but the situation might have been way worse if the truck had ended up on the other side of the highway – down the bank and directly in the Fraser River itself. Luckily it isn’t salmon spawning season, but I don’t know what other damage thousands of liters of diesel might have done to the river and the wildlife that survives on it.

A resident who lives near to the spill asked why a boom of some sort wasn’t placed across the river just below the spill to contain it, and it is a really good question. Unfortunately, I think a huge part of the answer is in how long it takes for people to understand the situation and call in the correct response unit, and how long it takes for them to get here.

The person driving a vehicle that crashes is not going to be carrying all of the equipment that might be needed in every situation – if the driver is even capable of doing anything. It takes time for police and emergency vehicles to get to semi-remote areas – and remember, cell service is poor in this area – and time for them to assess the situation. The owner of the commodity is responsible for the clean-up, but there has to be a lot of coordination between the companies that have the equipment to do the clean-up, the insurance companies, the Ministry of Environment, not to mention the first responders and local highway maintenance company.

I tend to imagine worst-case scenarios, but it makes me wonder what would happen if a pipeline were to burst in this area.
The fact that our highways can be dangerous is a good reason to keep these sorts of products in pipelines rather than on the highway or on the railroad. And there is no magic want getting us off fossil fuels tomorrow, so we’ll be using them for some time, to be sure. There are already lots of pipelines across the country, including through Mount Robson and Jasper parks. And I know there are lots of maintenance regimens, lots of great new technology like the “pigs” they send down a pipeline looking for potential problems from the inside. But there are still spills and accidents. How long would it take to respond to and clean up a pipeline spill between Rearguard Falls and Clearwater?

Some argue we should approve the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion because it will mean jobs. Some might argue Valemount has already shown approval of the plan when the “Benefits Agreement” was signed with Kinder Morgan. The company may conveniently leave the word “impacts” out of the name of their agreement program, but it says the funds “help compensate for the disruption caused” during the construction of the project. That is not approval of the project; it is recognition of the impacts the construction phase will have on those communities. And it doesn’t address what happens after the construction is complete.

So back to the future, when we might have two pipelines through Valemount. The new one is twice the size of the original, and carrying much heavier products, like diluted bitumen – a product that needs to be dissolved to make it flow through the pipeline. Kinder Morgan changed their plan for pumping stations in this region, because they didn’t want to pay for a new power source or an extension to the electric transmission line. After construction, there won’t be any more Kinder Morgan jobs here in Valemount. So who is going to respond to a spill? How long will the response take? How much product will spill between the shut-off valves, once they are activated? Diesel floats on water, and can be collected in a boom – not so with diluted bitumen. It would sink to the bottom of the river, potentially coating and destroying fish spawning habitat or smothering the young fry still living in the gravel. And what would it do to other local wildlife? And to our local businesses and families that depend on people coming here for the beauty and the natural environment of the place?

We’re past the time for public comment on the Trans Mountain expansion, but as a community, we’ve really just begun our own work on emergency and disaster response. Emergency planning has been on Council’s priority list for some time, with very little happening, it seems. It’s been four years since Valemount had to deal with road closures in every direction and the loss of our municipal water system when Swift Creek nearly jumped its banks. It’s about time we started seriously looking at emergency response as a community.