OPINION: What we need in Chilliwack is a good 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

When liquid gold flows, it’s always good news.

It was quite an injustice in Burnaby in 2007 when Kinder Morgan and two local contractors were criticized after 250,000 litres of crude oil spewed from the Trans Mountain Pipeline, 70,000 litres of which flowed into Burrard Inlet leading to a $15 million cleanup.

This should have been seen as a good news story, was it not? Ka-ching: $15 million!

Sure, the 21-count indictment led to a number of convictions under the Environmental Management Act, but it goes on the pipeline’s permanent record. The pipeline is not applying for a job at Tim Hortons.

“Have you ever had a criminal conviction?”

“Well, that’s a funny story . . .”

And, like a good war, doesn’t a nice oil spill actually help the economy? Oil in the inlet might not exactly be the trickle down that supply-side economists are so fond of, but it still works, right?

Kinder Morgan thinks so.

“Spill response and clean-up creates business and employment opportunities for affected communities, regions, and cleanup service providers,” according to the company’s submission to the National Energy Board.

There has been considerable backlash against the company’s rah-rah-spill plan, but I say they are getting a raw deal. Sure, there are critics of “the broken window fallacy,” an economic notion that destruction is actually a good thing on the balance sheets of our communities.

But $15 million is jobs and economic activity, no doubt. Just imagine a spill of the Kalamazoo variety in the Fraser River? That’s a BC Jobs Plan.

Here’s the thing: there are not only economic benefits to a nice, glossy spill in the river, but the community building would be even better.

I was down at the Cheam First Nation’s beach along the Fraser River on March ?? as Kinder Morgan staff engaged in a tidy, contrived, oil spill exercise.

Sure, the “response” was conducted with no sense of urgency. Sure, those involved were using equipment to skim oil off the Fraser River, oil that would more than likely be diluted bitumen, which would probably sink. And, sure, no one was wearing full hazmat suits despite the fact that at least one company’s Material Data Sheet (MDS) says that the toxicity of the diluent, which allows the thick oil sands to flow, is so great that “vapour may cause irritation of eyes, nose and throat, dizziness and drowsiness. Contact with skin may cause irritation and possibly dermatitis. Contact of liquid with eyes may cause severe irritation/burns.”

But despite that, think of the community building from an oil spill. It was like a sectoral group hug that day along the river on the Cheam Beach.

Sto:lo band members chatted with RCMP officers. Kinder Morgan staff joked with SPCA people. Oil spill cleanup workers talked to me.

They shared lunch. They traded information. We should have an annual oil spill. Down by the river. We could call it the Annual Chilliwack Doggone Dilbit BBQ and River Cleanup.

The collaboration and communication could be great. We could gather folks from Kinder Morgan, the City of Chilliwack, the FVRD, Fraser Health, local search and rescue, Environment Ministry, DFO, federal energy officials, First Nations, SPCA, oil spill specialists, boy scouts, girl guides, church groups and anyone else who wants to join the group hug.

Let’s get together. Have an oil spill. Clean some birds. Make some friends.

Two of the main criticisms of an expanded pipeline pumping diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to Burnaby are leaks and jobs. Specifically, the risk of an oil spill is just too much for some people to take and, once completed, there will only be a handful of new jobs created.

If only those Burnaby residents could have looked on the bright side of that 2007 oil spill.

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