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Study shows oil spill near Fraser River estuary could kill over 100,000 birds

May 18 2015

Heron on a rock in English Bay with a tanker in the background

A recent study commissioned by the City of Vancouver, Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and Living Oceans Society found that Kinder Morgan Canada’s proposal to expand the Trans Mountain Pipeline system largely excludes the most serious impacts of an oil spill near Vancouver – the impact on wildlife.

The study, titled “Fate and Effect of Oil Spills from the Trans Mountain Expansion Project in Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River Estuary,” was prepared by Dr. Jeffrey Short. Dr. Short is an international expert on the fate and effect of oil spills with 31 years of experience as a Research Chemist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service. His report will be submitted as evidence to the National Energy Board (NEB) as part of the Trans Mountain Pipeline hearing process. 

Sea- and shorebirds rely on Salish Sea and Fraser River

The report notes that the “Salish Sea, and especially Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River estuary, is one of the most ecologically important coastal marine habitats along the entire Pacific coast of North America,” with more than one million sea- and shorebirds relying on the Salish Sea and Fraser River for habitat, food, and shelter.

The report finds that the “extraordinarily high densities and numbers of sea‐ and shorebirds, marine mammals, and fish make them especially vulnerable to potentially devastating mortalities should a major oil spill occur in Burrard Inlet or the Fraser River estuary.” Spill modelling carried out by Genwest Inc. showed that up to 90 per cent of oil from a spill can reach the shorelines within 48 hours. Oil stranded in the intertidal zone of a beach establishes “effective killing zones” for sea- and shorebirds.

Spill could kill more than 100,000 birds

The study finds that a large dilbit spill near the Fraser River estuary could potentially kill more than 100,000 birds and impact other animals. Substantial numbers of marine mammals, especially Harbour seals and Harbour porpoise could perish, and the viability of the endangered southern resident killer whale population could be jeopardized, elevating their risk of extinction.

The crude facts of diluted bitumen

The majority of crude oil transported on the expanded pipeline system and exported via tanker is expected to be diluted bitumen (dilbit). Dilbit consists of heavy bitumen (crude oil) and a lighter natural gas condensate. Dilbit spilled on water behaves differently than conventional crude oil. The study concludes that natural gas condensate components of dilbit begin to evaporate quickly, leaving behind a thick, heavy substance that is prone to sinking in as little as 24 hours which makes it much harder to recover. Another expert retained by Vancouver and Tsleil-Waututh has concluded that a credible worst case scenario oil spill along the tanker route is 16 million litres of dilbit. 

View an infographic showing the facts on diluted bitumen.

Millions of salmon at risk

The Fraser River is the largest single salmon-producing river on the Pacific Coast of North America, supporting runs of sockeye, chinook, chum, pink and Coho salmon. The Trans Mountain Pipeline makes over 80 water-crossings within the Lower Fraser River watershed, putting millions of salmon that use that river at risk from a pipeline accident or malfunction. Any impact on salmon and their habitat could have severe knock-on effects for the “commercial fisheries worth millions of dollars, and subsistence harvest for First Nations that depend on them for maintaining their cultural heritage as well as for nutrition.”

City to publicly file evidence with NEB

This important study forms part of the written evidence that will be submitted to the National Energy Board on May 27, 2015.

Public input wanted

The City continues to collect questions and concerns from the public about the proposal, helping to inform the City’s process and ensure that all voices are heard. 

You are encouraged to:

  • Join the conversation on Twitter at #TalkTankers
  • Fill out our online survey

Learn more, read the full report, along with other reports

Download a fact sheet on the properties and health impacts of dilbit.

Read the full report

NEB evidence library

View the evidence we are submitting to the National Energy Board on the potential affects and risks of the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion.