Photo: Youth leaders get firsthand look at oil leaks

By Winnie Hwo, Climate Change Campaigner & John Werring, Aquatic Habitat Specialist

In May 2010, it was reported in the media that crude oil, gasoline and diesel were found to be seeping into Burrard Inlet from Chevron Canada's oil refinery property in North Burnaby. The "leak" (which was actually seepage of contaminated groundwater coming to the surface) was discovered during a routine company inspection at least a month earlier but was not made public until late May.

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When the David Suzuki Foundation found out about this, our aquatic habitat specialist John Werring conducted several field investigations and found evidence of oil seeping from the Chevron property onto local beaches. He also noted that little was being done to stem the flow of contaminated groundwater onto the beach. Werring conducted a detailed review of documents held by the BC Ministry of Environment's Environmental Protection Division that catalogued the results of a long-term "perimeter monitoring program" (carried out by Chevron an reported annually to the Ministry) from 2000 to 2008. His review of these reports was published in the Burnaby Now newspaper in fall 2010.

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Hydrocarbon "seep" on Chevron Beach December 2, 2010. Oil is flowing from the beach (bottom of picture) to the water (top of picture).

"In a nutshell, the reports make it abundantly clear that Chevron has known for years that the groundwater and soils on their site are contaminated with hydrocarbons and those hydrocarbons include: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH's — specifically the toxic varieties like naphthalene, phenanthrene, and pyrene; volatile organic compounds (primarily BETX: Benzene, Ethylbenzene, toluene and Xylenes); light and heavy extractable crude; diesel; and MTBE (Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether). Some of the most heavily contaminated areas have been dubbed "areas of environmental concern," Werring wrote.

"The levels of these contaminants (with the exception of MTBE) in the areas of greatest environmental concern (which, [by the way], exist both near the tank farm and the refinery) exceed the BC Contaminated Sites Regulation standards for industrial lands and for the protection of aquatic life.... Chevron has known for at least a decade that their site is heavily contaminated and that contaminated material is migrating off of their site. And they have had, for almost a decade, information in hand that tells them that there are areas of the beach that are contaminated," he added.

Werring concluded that "what is clear is this site is leaking and leaking badly and will continue to do so unless drastic measures are taken to capture and treat ALL of the groundwater migrating off site."

At the time, Chevron spokesperson Ray Lord was quoted as saying the company had yet to determine the level of damage to the environment.

"We're dealing with a very small amount of material and because it's mixed with water, it's been difficult to determine an exact quantity, but this is not something that we think presents a danger to the environment or to the public," he said. "But it needs to be addressed and it needs to be cleaned up."

Over the next 22 months (June 2010 — March 2012) Chevron undertook studies and implemented remedial measures to stop the flow of hydrocarbons off its property and onto the public beach. They installed numerous monitoring wells and dug trenches along the high water line on the beach, installed a "reactive core matting" barrier in the trenches and then backfilled the trenches. The matting is to act as a curtain to prevent further contamination of the beach environment by stopping hydrocarbons from leaking on to the beach. Meanwhile, contaminated groundwater was being pumped out of the ground and being re-routed up to Chevron's property to be treated.

The works undertaken have largely stemmed the visible flow of hydrocarbons onto the beach below the Chevron property. However, ongoing monitoring shows that there is still some groundwater contamination occurring both inside and outside the remediated area but the levels below the "trenches" are now far less than before remediation took place.

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In early June 2012, youth from SUCCESS's Youth Leadership Millennium program's gold and silver levels joined John Werring for a beach walk along the affected area of beach at the foot of Penzance Drive in North Burnaby — the same pebble strewn beach that showed signs of oil, gas and diesel contamination from the Chevron Refinery as recently as one year ago.

Braving heavy rain at times, the group transformed into environmental investigators for one afternoon. The eight youth leaders, ranging from age 16 to 19, went looking for living organisms as well as the not-so-alive and to experience first-hand some of the normally unseen impacts of urban environmental pollution. The following are some of their thoughts after the field trip.

Albert Cherng:
"The David Suzuki field trip that took place on June 16, 2012, was truly inspiring. It made us more aware of environmental problems that are present in our local community. These problems could inflict serious damages to our ecosystem and us too!"

Angela Li:
"When I first looked at my calendar, I wasn't sure what to expect from the David Suzuki field trip. As I arrived at the beach, my eyes were opened to the harms caused by oil. ..When I go to the beach, I would have the usual response of 'Oh, look at the beach; it is so dirty.' I never questioned why! I was shocked because I didn't realize the damage was so close to home ...It really made me feel 'wow!' And it made me feel we should always be aware of this kind of thing."

Nana Liu:
"The field trip provided us an opportunity to be closer to the natural environment and different organisms. The most impressive for me were the baby crabs on the beach. I grabbed a red baby crab on my hand and let it crawl all over my hand. I can see its little eyes looking around as I hold it close to my face. The field trip on the beach is a wonderful experience for me despite the rainy weather. I hope that more and more people will be aware of and concerned about the environmental issue in Metro Vancouver. Let's protect our home and lovely baby crabs!"

Vanora Lo:
"The plants, the animals, the environment and the living human beings in our society are constantly at risk due to effects and damages done by the oil reserves. The experience allowed me to understand the cost we have to pay."

Christy Cheng:
"The beach seemed like one part was completely dead....We need to raise awareness to the media and have something done."

Jeffrey Tam:
"...reaching the dead zone of the beach, it felt like I arrived at a completely different beach. The sand was lifeless....barnacles that normally colonized the boulders were either non-existent or dead...The safety measure that were in place are completely inadequate. It is like trying to fish with a net that has a giant hole in it."

Ajax Wong:
"As a group, we all had mutual feelings, so we decided to take action.... I hope we can file this problem and I hope people would start to take action."

July 12, 2012

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