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Too Risky: Northwest Tribes, Environmental Advocates Oppose Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion

Pacific Northwest tribes are wary of the increase in shipping traffic that an expansion of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline in British Columbia could bring to Washington State.

Environmental advocates leaped two big hurdles this month, only to find yet another equally large one in their path.

On December 4, the U.S. Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, announced she will not approve an easement that would allow the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota.

And on November 29, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would have been used to transport oil sands crude from Alberta to a refinery in Kitimat, British Columbia.

However, Trudeau approved Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of its Trans Mountain Pipeline from Edmonton, Alberta to Vancouver, British Columbia, growth that would triple the company’s capacity of so-called tar sands oil—a heavy, thick crude that is mined and diluted with hydrocarbons to make it transportable by pipeline to be refined—to nearly 900,000 barrels per day and increase its number of supertanker visits to Vancouver, B.C.

Kinder Morgan plans to ship 400 tankers loaded with tar sands oil each year through the Salish Sea, according to the Georgia Straits Alliance. The alliance, formed in 1990 in response to increased pollution and damage to the marine environment, states that increased shipping traffic from the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion and other proposed projects in B.C. and Washington ports present a 375 percent increase in oil spill risk.

“Around 11,000 large vessels transit through the Salish Sea each year, bound for U.S. and Canadian ports,” the Alliance reported. “Giant oil tankers, container ships and bulk cargo carriers navigate tricky turns through Haro Strait, Boundary Pass and adjacent islands. All through these waters, naval vessels, cruise ships, fishing boats, pleasure craft and ferries compete for right-of-way with giant freighters and tankers.”

Between a proposed coal and container terminal expansion in Delta, B.C., and the latest pipeline expansion approval, “shipping traffic is set to grow dramatically in the next decade, in large part due to major fossil fuel export projects, including Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline expansion,” the group said.

The interests of industry and the marine environment have long conflicted in the Salish Sea, and many say living things that depend on a healthy marine environment have been losing.

At Risk of Extinction: 113 Species

The Salish Sea is an inland sea bounded on the west by Vancouver Island, on the north by mainland British Columbia, on the east by mainland Washington state and on the south by the Olympic Peninsula. The entrances to the sea from the Pacific Ocean are the Strait of Juan de Fuca along the Olympic Peninsula coast, and Georgia Strait, which separates Vancouver Island from mainland British Columbia.

In the middle of the Salish Sea are the San Juan Islands, which were declared a national monument in 2013 and are overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The San Juans are the place of origin for several Coast Salish peoples. Other islands and rocks dot the sea as well.

“The region's pristine rocky coasts stand as vulnerable sentinels lining the route for millions of barrels of petroleum products which move through it annually,” the U.S. Coast Guard warned in a vessel operator’s guide. “Oceanographers estimate that a major spill in this region could blanket the entire area within two 24-hour tidal cycles.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 113 marine species and sub-species in the Salish Sea are listed as being at risk or vulnerable to extinction; some 172 species of birds and 37 mammals that use the Salish Sea marine ecosystem for some part of their life cycle.

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“Chinook salmon populations are down 60 percent since the Pacific Salmon Commission began tracking salmon data in 1984,” the EPA reports.

The population of three resident pods of killer whales, which depend primarily on chinook salmon for their diet, is 80—down from 99 in 1999—according to the Center for Whale Research.

During the 2012 Canoe Journey/Paddle to Squaxin, canoe pullers were advised not to get into the water when they arrived for the landing at the Port of Olympia, because of contaminated sediment. Shasta Cano-Martin, a former Lummi Nation council member, was in a Lummi Nation canoe that day. She worries about the marine environment she lives in being so polluted that her children “are not able to swim and enjoy clean water.”

As canoes rafted to ask permission to come ashore, a huge tanker steamed by, underscoring the bay’s use as an industrial waterway. In Lummi waters, crabbers regularly lose crab pots to tankers like this one.

Cano-Martin said it’s not uncommon for companies to offer money as a way of mitigating impacts to crabbing and fishing. But crabbing and fishing are treaty-protected rights, Cano-Martin said.

“There’s no price tag on it.”

Bill Tsilixw James, a traditional chief of the Lummi Nation, said that although indigenous Peoples are at the forefront of the battle to protect the Salish Sea, environmental health is not just an indigenous issue.

“We always say that water is life,” James said. “It’s the lifeline of our people—and not just us. It’s everybody, every human being.”

What is his message to those who say that processing and shipping of fossil fuels is necessary in order to meet market demands domestically and overseas?

“There are other kinds of alternative resources available—wind, tidal energy, solar,” he said. “Why are we not exploring that?” Growing use of alternative energy in his state provides some substantiation for its viability.

Wind power accounted for 6 percent of the electricity generated in Washington in 2014, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The 76 MW of solar energy currently generated in Washington is enough energy to power 7,400 homes per year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Lucid Energy uses water that passes through domestic pipes to generate electricity, using spherical turbines that spin as water passes through them. And nearly 18,000 electric vehicles, were registered in Washington as of June 30, according to West Coast Green Highway. In fact, some of the earliest cars built in the U.S. were electric; an electric car built by the Riker Electric Motor Company won the first auto race in the United States, on September 7, 1896, according to the History Channel.

Cano-Martin said the environmental risk from the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion is too great. She doesn’t believe the expansion is necessary.

“There’s already enough infrastructure in place,” she said. “There’s no need to build more.”