Photo: We are the Kalamazoo

Today is the two-year anniversary of the Kalamazoo catastrophe in Michigan. What would Vancouver's Jericho Beach look like two years after a bitumen spill? (Credit: Victoria Wills)

By Victoria Wills, Communications Intern for the David Suzuki Foundation

If you walk along the Kalamazoo River in Michigan today, you still find warning signs that prohibit swimming and fishing due to the Enbridge oil spill that occurred two years ago today. On the two year anniversary of the catastrophic leak of 20,000 barrels of crude oil from the Alberta tar sands, a 60 kilometre stretch of the Kalamazoo has still not opened to public use.

Such consequences are to be expected when tar sands bitumen — a product wholly different from light crude — leaks into a water source then sinks to the bottom. There is no skimming, no burning off, no digestion by microbes, no wonder that cleanup authorities in the Kalamazoo found themselves so unprepared for the Enbridge spill.

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Today on Vancouver's Fraser River, you could find a similar sign to those along the Kalamazoo. Community activists planted the warning in southern Vancouver last night to hold a vigil for the destruction of the Kalamazoo, but also to warn of the fate that could befall the Fraser if Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline comes to fruition. The pipeline would transport bitumen across 300 streams and rivers from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat, B.C. before loading it into tankers headed for Asian markets. One of those rivers is the upper section of Vancouver's beloved Fraser.

Last night also saw a meeting that focused on another proposed project: the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, which would run from Edmonton to Burnaby. A pipeline dating from 1953 already exists along this route — you might remember it from the 2007 incident in which nearly 1,500 barrels of crude oil spewed into a Burnaby neighbourhood. However, Kinder Morgan would like to build another to increase its export of crude to bring 300 to 400 more tankers into the Burrard Inlet per year — tankers that would carry 700,000 barrels of oil each and range from 200 to 300 metres long, approximately the height of Vancouver's tallest building.

With the Kalamazoo River as a point of reference, these are concerning numbers for Vancouver's coastline. A spill in Burrard Inlet would see the probable destruction of sea life in the Burrard Inlet, around Stanley Park and along the beaches of English Bay and Point Grey, the setting of last night's meeting. As the Wilderness Committee's Healthy Communities Campaigner Ben West noted, a spill in Burrard Inlet could be smelled all the way at B.C. Premier Christy Clark's office at 4th and Alma. With proposed tankers sliding through Second Narrows a mere 1.6 metres from the bottom of the inlet, a spill would not be a question of "if," but a question of "when."

Yet the hundred-plus concerned citizens who packed into St. James Hall last night did not want to dwell on the doom and gloom of these figures. Instead, speakers from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, the Wilderness Committee, Point Grey Natural Foreshore and Waterfowl Protective Sanctuary Society, Vancouver Board of Parks and Trade and Tanker Free BC expressed their deep belief in the grassroots movement gaining speed in Vancouver.

From the pulpit of the warmly lit hall, speakers likened the move against big oil to the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century in which people fought for the rights of their fellow human beings. This time, Tsleil-Waututh member Reuben George said, we're fighting for ourselves, for our rights to walk along a clean beach, for the right of our children to do the same.

Others cited to the rich activist history of Vancouver itself as the birthplace of Greenpeace, Adbusters and our own David Suzuki. As West noted, it is a kind of poetic irony that the Kinder Morgan pipeline must pass through Vancouver, frequently seen as the environmental stronghold of the country. The Kitsilano community, the city, the province and the country at large are up against a lot, but unlike spilled bitumen, their movement shows no sign of sinking.

July 25, 2012

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