Health and climate advocates are urging British Columbia to develop a credible evacuation plan in case of an oil spill in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project opens for business.

In a letter dated May 8 and addressed to British Columbia’s Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman, environmental advocacy organizations, along with city councillors from Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Port Moody, Green Party of Canada co-leader Elizabeth May and prominent environmentalist David Suzuki warn that safety measures to protect lives and human health in the event of an oil spill are not in place.

Trans Mountain has published emergency response plans for its pipeline and terminals, but because a spill in Burrard Inlet would involve multiple jurisdictions, a “Greater Vancouver Integrated Response Plan” has been developed. That plan spells out how initial assessments of marine spills would be conducted, reported and communicated. But according to the letter's signatories, it’s up to the B.C. government to clarify responsibilities specifically.

“The human health assessment, accepted by the BC Environmental Assessment Office (BC EAO), states that local health authorities will co-ordinate with other agencies to perform all necessary emergency response tasks, including evacuations,” the letter reads. “Yet clarification of responsibilities and processes for these life-saving tasks, what resources are required and who has the capacity for the work, has not been established.

“The authority for protecting the public from a marine spill in these waters rests with the BC EAO.”

The $34-billion pipeline expansion project nearly triples the amount of oil that flows from Alberta to the B.C. coast, where it is then loaded onto ships for global markets. Trans Mountain says its Westridge Marine Terminal can handle 37 Aframax class tankers per month. Those tankers will load up in Burnaby and travel past Vancouver before leaving Burrard Inlet.

Using estimates from Transport Canada’s emergency response guidebook, the signatories write that if an Aframax tanker, which can carry up to 600,000 barrels of oil, spilled two-thirds of its load with only 0.5 per cent reaching the shores, it would require the evacuation of 25,000 people. If the oil ignited, that number leaps to over 100,000 people needing to be evacuated.

Screenshot of a map showing potential evacuation zones, with red referring to areas that would need to be evacuated in the event of an oil tanker spill, and red and yellow referring to the areas that would require evacuation if a fire broke out.

“Fire- and smoke-related mass casualties would be expected, along with hospitalizations from cardio-respiratory conditions and skin exposures to carcinogens for those who join in [the cleanup] and contact the spilled diluted bitumen,” the letter reads. “Damages, including mental health impacts, would be potentially present for years to come.”

“Fire- and smoke-related mass casualties would be expected, along with hospitalizations from cardio-respiratory conditions and skin exposures to carcinogens for those who join in [the cleanup] and contact the spilled diluted bitumen." #TMX

It’s a real possibility. Just over a year ago, an Aframax tanker exploded in Malaysia, killing three crew members.

The letter says that a “human health assessment” conducted for the Trans Mountain expansion project states local health authorities will co-ordinate to carry out necessary emergency responses, including evacuations. But to date, there’s no clarity about who is responsible for what, potentially creating a jurisdictional mess that puts people in jeopardy.

The letter also urges the B.C. government to tell the federal government not to allow any Trans Mountain tankers through the Vancouver narrows until a credible plan to protect people from oil spills is in place.

Heyman's office did not return a request for comment by deadline.

“On top of expansion of the fossil fuel industry in a climate emergency compounding health harms from wildfire smoke, extreme heat and flooding, I have major concerns about the health and safety risks of a potential tanker spill for patients who live in this region,” said Dr. Melissa Lem, a Vancouver family doctor and president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, in a statement. “The lack of a workable plan to protect us in the face of a significant increase in tankers carrying highly flammable and explosive cargo right by our neighbourhoods is unconscionable."

President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip echoed those concerns, saying in a statement that in the face of a climate emergency, “we are gravely concerned with the environmental impacts of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion,” including both the planet-warming greenhouse gases and threat to marine ecosystems.

Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry said in a statement that oil tankers potentially spilling oil is an “unacceptable risk” given the city does not have capacity for a plan to evacuate tens of thousands of people. At the same time, even in modern North American ports, accidents happen, he said.

“Just weeks ago, we witnessed aghast as a container ship lost power, colliding with and destroying one of Baltimore’s major bridges, claiming half a dozen lives and shutting down one of the United States’ busiest shipping routes,” he said. “That container ship was only slightly longer than one of the Aframax oil tankers, which are now expected to depart the Trans Mountain terminal laden with crude oil 34 times a month.”

The federal government purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline project for $4.5 billion in 2018 from Kinder Morgan and has publicly said it intends to sell the pipeline back to the private sector now that construction is finished. Experts say Ottawa is likely to take a significant loss on the project if it sells the pipeline given the massive cost overruns.

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All of this, every single concern about oil spills into the sea and a hopelessly inadequate spill response, has been regurgitated over and over since the project was announced.

The absolute hypocrisy of proponents is now front and centre now that the actuality of spills, potentially major ones at that, has arrived.

And guess what? BC, which was adamantly opposed to this project and took it to the highest courts in the province and the country to stop it (joined by the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby and several First Nations) but lost based on only one point of law -- exclusive federal jurisdiction -- is supposed to not just assume the majority of risk and damage, but to organize the cleanup efforts, which will undoubtedly be massive and lasr years.

Burnaby produced an animated map indicating a spill equivalent to just 20% of an Aframax tanker's contents into Burrard Inlet (Vancouver Harbour) and punched in the tidal flow data projected over a week or so. There it was, a blob breaking up and spreading to the farthest reaches of the inlet and also out of First Narrows into English Bay. That map also showed both the Second Narrows and First Narrows bridge abutments, two of the most likely accident sites.

The oil originates from Alberta. TMX was built to appease Alberta. Alberta premiers Notley, Kenney and Smith derided and sneered at BC over its concerns about spills on the coast.

So what the fuck is Alberta going to do in the event of a massive spill on the coast? Sneer? Laugh? Stay silent while enjoying the economic benefits delivered to them on a silver platter by the taxpayers of Canada? The laughter will cease if they are forced ti defend their interests in the oil in a multibillion dollar international class action lawsuit filed by BC, Washington State.and coastal cities, First Nations and economic interests dependent on the marine environment.

TMX and Alberta's oil saturated politics have ramped up my support for EVs. Even though electric cars are still components that assault good urbanism, each EV on the road in BC directly eliminates its share of Alberta bitumen and oil sands pollution. Nothing will have a more direct impact on the demand for Alberta oil than the electrification of transportation. Please, get on with electrifying everything.

Lastly, this article mentions fire. The Burnaby Fire Dept. remains strongly opposed ro TMX and cites the risk of toxic smoke to hundreds of thousands of Metro Vancouver residents in the event of a fire at the TMX tank farm storage facility on the slopes of Burnaby Mountain. Tank farm fires cannot be extinguished once they reach a certain level. They burn for days. A toxic black cloud will spread many km in any direction the wind blows, but the immediate threat of toxic smoke occurs in concentrations within five km of the source. About 200,000 people live within that radius.

The BFD exposed the legal efforts of TMX mangement to eliminate some key safety standards at the tank farm as part of its huge expansion of storage capacity.

Given all of the above, one could be forgiven for thinking this is some kind of banana republic from the 19th Century.

Critics who have defined the most likely constraints to TMX capacity and tankers have yet to be adequately refuted. When attempts to publicly question critical analysis occur in the media -- especially on the economics -- proponents rarely cite real data, evidence or facts. They resort to magical thinking.

So the maximum capacity will be 37 tankers a month. Does that really mean sales will ever reach that capacity, and if so for how long given the world wide effort to substitute clean electricity for fossil fuels, not to mention in Alberta's primary export market, the US?

So the diversification of sales to Asia will counter the "discounted" prices the US legitimately pays for the low quality, expensive to process bitumen? Well, prove it, not just by publishing the number of sales across the Pacific vs the number of sales to coastal US refineries, but also the price Asian refineries pay when they rarely order Canadian bitumen. The fact is, China and Malaysia will not pay premium prices for poor quality, let alone the hefty costs of trans Pacific shipping added on top. The last Asian sales I am aware of occurred years ago when the world price tanked and Alberta was suffering enough to let the oil go at bargain basement prices.

These tankers, whatever fraction of the maximum terminal capacity they achieve (it won't be 37 tankers a month for long, if it ever reaches that level), will be turning left at the entry to Juan de Fuca Strait and heading south to California refineries capable of processing heavy oil loaded with toxic heavy metals. The US "discount" will always apply to it, and it is Americans who will capture the huge price differential between low cost feedstock and finished high value products. It was planned that way ever since primarily foreign oil companies bought out the Alberta government and made the industry-government cabinet a revolving door for company executives.

There is an 80% loaded capacity limit on the tankers due to the shallow parts of Vancouver Harbour around the Second Narrows bridge, which presents a very narrow "gate" complicated by the presence of a low level railway bridge with abutments sticking into the channel.

Double hulled tankers, duo tethered tugboats, etc., will not stop an accident involving another passing ship losing power in the shipping channel or a miscalculation by a pilot on the hairpin turns in Boundary Pass. And just where are these wimpy marine cleanup vessels located? Nowhere near the shared Southern Gulf Islands (Canada) and San Juan Islands (US) archipelago. How quickly can these small vessels arrive at the collision site of a tanker broken up on the rocky south eastern tip of Saturna Island spilling 500,000 barrels of heavy bitumen and gasoline-like condensate in the middle of a raging winter gale? Chances are they won't even leave the ports of Victoria and Vancouver in stormy conditions.

There was never a proper risk assessment done for this project that accounted for stormy inland seas and complex routes between rocky islands. Everybody was too focused on the land-based pipeline to bother paying enough attention to the marine tanker portion. And BC is expected to take on all that risk? Trudeau had better speak to that very soon because the spreading knowledge of that risk will offend his electoral support on the BC coast, which is already really tenuous.

TMX was a great mistake. Trudeau didn't have to prove how much unlike his father he is by appeasing Alberta and stepping in to build the pipe after being played so smoothly by Rich Kinder to buy it under threat of cancellation. The $34B (plus billions more in loan guarantees) could have electrified transportation over several provinces. The feds will be hard pressed to write down its losses over TMX already, but potentially adding a massive international lawsuit over a major oil spill will present a bottomless pit and a huge political hurdle for any party in power to jump without tripping, including Poilievre who is a pipeline fanboy.

Stop building fossil fuel pipelines to the coast. Stop burning stuff. These are the best options available after properly accounting for fossil fuel risk in all its forms.

Data for tanker shipments to China can be found at my article in the December 2020 Watershed Sentinel at

Since then, ten tankers went to China in 2021, two in 2022, one in 2023 and none so far this year. For more details ask me at huntley{at}sfu[dot]ca.

Thank you for the link to your research. You and other knowledgable researchers have been right all along and have provided an antidote to the exaggerations and inflated expectations published by the oil export fan club.

"triggering dozens more tankers to cross the waters each month. " Typical media hyperbole (see Lying in Politics, elsewhere in this news site). The illustration is a bulk carrier - not an oil tanker, and it, minimum risk as it is, is accompanied by two tugs (in the picture) - it's escorted; usually by three tugs. In terms of risk management, there have been zero accidents involving oil tankers in Burrard Inlet since the original pipeline opened - so even tripling that risk, i.e. three times a very small number, doesn't increase the actual risk very much at all. Do the arithmetic.

The risk is not zero. But the number of professional level, independent risk assessments conducted specifically for the conditions of Burrard Inlet and the 250 km route through the Salish Sea on behalf of TMX is zero.

I am aware of only one test conducted on a calm lake in Alberta, which has nothing to do with West Coast conditions, namely the geography, seasonal weather trends, marine ecological systems and sea-oriented economics and traffic.

The article brought up escape route planning in case the diluted bitumen and the condensate solvents that float on the water's surface ignite in urban areas. Did TMX or its owner produce such plans?

To cite zero accidents with tankers shipping TM bitumen with historically low numbers of sailings does not mean there have not been no marine accidents, or that there will be none in future.

A few years back the brand new Japanese built cargo ship spilled a relatvely small amount of oil into English Bay. The spill response took days to arrive, by which time the oil had already spread to the rocky beaches of Stanley Park. The preparedness for a major spill does not look good with this pathetic response to one minor incident.

The spill response boats in Vancouver Harbour are small and will not be able to attend to a major incident 20 km out in the middle of the open Strait of Georgia in a winter gale, let alone travel through heavy seas to a collision site in Boundary Pass or Haro Strait.

A few decades back a Russian freighter with a cowboy captain crashed into a ferry in Active Pass and killed at least one person.

Mechanical failure and human error/stupidity are predictable as primary causes of shipping accidents. That predictability can be planned for. To date, no adequate plan for major oil spills or tank farm fires has been published.

Perhaps crossing one's fingers is the extent of planning and preparedness in the case of TMX. Prove me wrong.

"...have not been marine accidents or spills..."

Several weeks ago I read the evacuation plan for Westridge, where I live. It is laughable. It was clearly written by people who do not know the area. One trivial matter was that the Barnet Highway was mislabelled Barnet Road; Barnet Road was shown on the map but not labelled. One serious mistake was that the muster point had three directions to its location, with all three ending up at different places. Another was that all evacuations are west along Hastings Street, but what if the wind is blowing that way? As a teacher pointed out to me one should always have more than one potential muster point. If I had to evacuate I would probably go south on Duthie Avenue, depending on the wind direction, a possibility never mentioned. If we had an easterly outflow wind people should evacuate east along the Barnet Highway, i.e. upwind, but that possibility is not mentioned.
The plan is supposed to have been reviewed independently. From the information provided it appears that the reviewer lives in a residential house in Calgary, and has no web presence. There is no indication that this person has any relevant expertise, or has even made a site visit.
Trans Mountain should be made to start over.

Good gawd. Keystone Kops. Yours is the same community that got sprayed by the geyser of hot oil from a ruptured TM pipe during utility construction on the highway above. They should have had a local safety expert draw up the evacuation maps.

Burnaby is opposed to TMX. It is a very wealthy city that could afford to hire the best lawyers to defend its interests when being attacked by TMX proponents over false claims it was withholding permits on the project. Burnaby defended its case in a 39-page affidavit submitted to the old NEB that documented TMX lies (that were evidently sucked up and repeated by Post Media papers) and how it was TM personnel that did not meet their permit application obligations that shot the permit process to hell. TMX was working behind Burnaby's back all along to bypass all municipal permits, and won that case with the biased NEB.

The same approach should be taken by council on safety standards, with the Burnaby Fire Dept. having council's back. I hope the NDP government really ups the pressure on Trudeau to expand spill cleanup efforts and to post a multibillion dollar bond to assist BC in cleanup efforts and damage remediation.

TMX is not appropriate for this century, and certainly not for the topographical conditions. Large portions of the Barnet Highway are built on geotechnically unstable ground, which happens to be relatively close to and above the Westridge Terminal. Look for the long, linear cracks in the road surface.

Alberta thinks it owns BC. And I say that as a ex-Albertan who now sees the arrogance that pushes projects like this, even the fact that it's one big federal subsidy that does not detract from Alberta's economic hubris, as being very, very distasteful and profoundly foolish given how much it relies on a single commodity now being insidiously eroded by renewables in export markets.