DFO risk assessment of Northern Gateway is, at best, a work in progress
The oil-pipeline spill into Alberta’s Red Deer River underscores the fears felt in British Columbia about the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project, which would cross several hundred salmon streams on its way to the coast.
Just how likely is it, if the Enbridge pipeline gets built, that it will one day leak into a tributary of the Skeena or Fraser Rivers?
Views on that differ. Environmentalists say a disaster, such as the one that hit the Red Deer on Friday, is inevitable.
“A dead certainty,” as pipeline critic Rafe Mair likes to say.
Enbridge, however, claims the risks at river crossings are low, and manageable – a view shared by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
DFO should know, because protecting fish habitat is the department’s business.
But a recent exchange between the federal Joint Review Panel and DFO should give pause for concern, because DFO acknowledges it doesn’t have key information.
In written evidence, DFO told the JRP that Enbridge’s approach in classifying risks at rivers “appears to be suitable for most pipeline crossings.”
However, DFO also noted there were “some instances” where Enbridge had assigned a lower risk rating than DFO would have done.
That prompted the JRP to ask for details.
“Please provide a list of watercourse crossings with important anadromous fish habitat where DFO would have assigned a higher risk rating than was assigned by Northern Gateway and where DFO thinks the proposed crossing method ought to be reconsidered to better reflect the risk rating,” the JRP asked in its information request.
DFO responded by explaining that the department manages risks to fish and fish habitat through a “risk categorization” process.
“For example, where high risks are anticipated, DFO may prefer that the proponent use a method that avoids or reduces the risk such as directional drilling beneath a watercourse to install the pipeline. If low risks are anticipated, other methods such as open-cut trenching across the watercourse may be appropriate,” stated the department.
DFO went on to say it had reviewed Enbridge’s risk-management approach overall and was “generally satisfied” with it.
“However, DFO notes that Northern Gateway continues to refine the pipeline route and we anticipate that assessment of risk will be an iterative process and … DFO will continue to work with Northern Gateway to determine the appropriate method and mitigation for each watercourse crossing,” the department stated.
In other words, it is a work in progress. Or put another way – they are making it up as they go along.
When DFO finally got around to addressing the question the JRP had actually asked, it couldn’t.
“As DFO has not conducted a complete review of all proposed crossings, we are unable to submit a comprehensive list as requested,” the department stated.
Instead of a comprehensive list, it offered just two examples of risk assessments. Only two – out of 600 to 1,000 rivers that will be crossed by the pipeline.
With so many river crossings out there to be looked at, one has to wonder how DFO is going to find the time to do the job, if the pipeline is approved. Will fisheries technicians be running ahead of the pipe-laying machines, assessing on the fly?
Despite its failure to answer the information request, DFO assured the JRP that “the risk posed by the project to fish and fish habitat can be managed through appropriate mitigation and compensation measures.”
In the wake of the Alberta accident – which illustrates how quickly damage can spread when oil mixes with moving water – one has to wonder how DFO can be so sure.
With the smell of fresh crude hanging in the air along the Red Deer, it is no surprise that British Columbians are worried about pipeline spills on their treasured salmon streams.