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Are we prepared for an oil spill?

Kinder Morgan employees participate in an emergency oil spill training exercise at Cheam First Nation beach on the Fraser River Thursday. - Paul J. Henderson
Kinder Morgan employees participate in an emergency oil spill training exercise at Cheam First Nation beach on the Fraser River Thursday.
— image credit: Paul J. Henderson

No oil was released. No animals were affected. No water was contaminated.

But the emergency response drill conducted last Friday by pipeline company Kinder Morgan at the Cheam First Nation beach on the Fraser River was a stark reminder of what could happen one day.

“It’s a bit scary, the thought of a spill,” newly elected Cheam band councillor Darwin Douglas told the Times. “It would be devastating for our community, but all the more reason that exercises like Thursday’s are important.”

Douglas, like many Cheam band members, spends a good portion of his summer fishing in the Fraser River. Four years ago approximately 30 million sockeye returned to the river and even more are expected this year. A spill of crude oil into the Fraser could prove disastrous for the nutritional and cultural mainstay of his and other Sto:lo bands.

“We live down there during the summer,” Douglas said of the spot on the river where Kinder Morgan set up for the drill. “We camp out there. It definitely raises a lot of concern and even after the exercise yesterday, community members started asking questions.

“There is a lot at stake here.”

The exercise on the beach involved local First Nations, police, Kent/Harrison Search and Rescue, the SPCA, CP Rail, wildlife recovery people and spill response experts.

The Kinder Morgan employees were led by trainer Michael Locke from Western Canadian Spill Services, an Alberta company that specializes in oil spill cleanup. Thursday’s oil response practice was one of about 15 such training sessions Kinder Morgan conducts annually to ensure it’s ready in the unlikely worst-case scenario of an oil spill.

“It is a possibility and we want to be ready for all eventualities,” said Rob Hadden, Western region director for Kinder Morgan.

“We are confident that we are going to respond and rescue the oil in the event of an incident.”

Crews at the beach Thursday set up booms in the water that would direct oil on the surface of the river where it would be removed into tanks or trucks using a skimmer.

As part of the training exercise, Locke talked to the Kinder Morgan employees about how to deal with wildlife in the event of an oil spill. He demonstrated a number of tools used to scare off birds and other animals from the scene of a spill, ranging from propane cannons to aluminum pie plates.

But BC SPCA chief scientific officer Sara Dubois, who was at the exercise on Thursday, said the demonstration of “hazing” equipment is only useful for first responders who get to an oil spill before the wildlife does.

Who would rehabilitate affected birds if there was a rupture in Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain oil pipeline somewhere in the Lower Mainland?

“We are completely unprepared for a wildlife response,” Dubois told the Times this week.

“There is no designated oiled wildlife facility in B.C.”

The only wildlife facilities in B.C. are run by non-profits or are small, home-based operations.

“None of those have the capacity to provide services for wildlife response on a large scale.”

Dubois said the reason there are no facilities and, to compare, there are 10 in California alone, is that in the United States pipeline companies have to say what they will do to rehabilitate wildlife in the event of an oil spill.

In Canada, it’s optional.

“If you want to pick up the wildlife, you can. If you want to walk away, you can.”

The BC SPCA is a member of the Oiled Wildlife Trust, a consortium of provincial wildlife organizations that issued a damning report regarding wildlife recovery capacity in 2011 in response to the Enbridge Northern Gateway project. Dubois said the message of that report still stands with respect to Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline currently being considered by the National Energy Board (NEB).

While concerned about the capacity to respond, both Dubois and Douglas said they were grateful to be asked to be included in Kinder Morgan’s emergency exercise.

“We have to face the fact there is a line there and we need to do whatever we can to build up our preparedness,” Douglas said. “The other fact of the matter is if there was an incident, our people would be one of the first on the scene.”

NEB hearings into Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion are expected to start early in 2015.

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