Authorities unprepared to evacuate tens of thousands in the event of catastrophic TMX tanker spill: advocates

xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) & səl̓ilwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Territories / Vancouver, BC, May 8, 2024 – Tens of thousands of people are at risk due to the lack of an adequate emergency response plan to handle a major tanker oil spill in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, say dozens of health, Indigenous and environmental organizations, city councillors, and others in an open letter sent today to BC’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman. The groups are sounding the alarm as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) has begun operations, yet no credible plan exists to handle an evacuation of coastal communities in the event of an oil spill.

The human health risk assessment (HHRA) for TMX, known as BC EAO Condition 38, was completed in 2023 by Intrinsik, a contractor hired by Trans Mountain. It states that local health authorities will coordinate with other agencies to perform all necessary emergency response tasks, including evacuations. Yet clarification of responsibilities and processes for these life-saving tasks, what resources are required, and who has capacity for the work, has not been established.

According to estimates derived from Transport Canada, if an Aframax tanker spills two-thirds of its 600,000-barrel load and only 0.5% reaches shore, over 25,000 people will require immediate evacuation, and 105,000 will need to evacuate if the explosive cargo ignites. Fire- and smoke-related mass casualties would be expected, along with hospitalizations for cardio-respiratory conditions and skin exposures to carcinogens from spilled dilbit. Damages, including mental health impacts, would be potentially devastating and present for years to come.

“On top of expansion of the fossil fuel industry in a climate emergency compounding health harms from wildfire smoke, extreme heat and flooding, I have major concerns about the health and safety risks of a potential tanker spill for patients who live in this region,” says Dr. Melissa Lem, a Vancouver family doctor and President of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), who sent the letter on behalf of the groups. “The lack of a workable plan to protect us in the face of a significant increase in tankers carrying highly flammable and explosive cargo right by our neighbourhoods is unconscionable.”

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) officially began commercial operations on May 1. The pipeline will transport highly flammable dilbit, i.e. diluted bitumen, dissolved in natural gas condensate. Over the past three years there have been an average of two tankers per month. TMX is slated to increase this number to 34.

“We are gravely concerned with the environmental impacts of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion – both the incredibly harsh reality of a possible toxic spill as well as the impacts of daily increased tanker traffic on the marine ecosystem, and the increase in greenhouse gas emissions from heavier fossil fuel extraction,” says Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “Given the rapidly accelerating climate emergency we are in, we need to keep heavy oil in the ground and be investing billions of dollars in clean energy production, not more pipelines.”

Pete Fry, Vancouver City Councillor and liaison for the Vancouver City Planning Commission says, “Accidents happen, even in a modern North American port. Just weeks ago, we witnessed aghast as a container ship lost power, colliding with and destroying one of Baltimore’s major bridges, claiming half a dozen lives, and shutting down one of the United States’ busiest shipping routes. That container ship was only slightly longer than one of the Aframax oil tankers, which are now expected to depart the Transmountain Terminal, laden with crude oil 34 times a month. As a city and a region, we have neither the capacity nor a credible plan to evacuate the tens of thousands of people and protect human health in the event of a catastrophic accident and oil spill in the Burrard Inlet – and that is an unacceptable risk.”

Dr. Tim Takaro, physician-scientist and expert in epidemiology and toxicology says, “Health Canada’s guidelines for an oil spill response emphasizes that hazardous materials should not be transported through populated areas. If a large spill ignites in the inlet, tens of thousands of people could require evacuation. Vancouver should not be forced to face this potentially catastrophic danger.”

“Fossil fuel-induced climate change is already impacting our kids’ daily lives through heat and wildfire smoke that limit outdoor play,” offers Kate McMahon, a mother of young children and team lead of For Our Kids Burnaby. “Now that the TMX pipeline is running and tanker traffic is set to increase, we’ll be exposed to yet another significant health and safety threat that will disproportionately impact children and other vulnerable groups in the event of a spill.”

The authority for protecting the public from a marine spill in the Salish Sea rests with the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. The letter’s signatories – who represent over 1 million people across BC, Canada and the US Pacific Northwest – are calling on the Minister to advise the federal government and TMX owner that no additional Trans Mountain tankers be allowed through the First and Second Narrows in Vancouver until there is a credible plan to protect the health and safety of people in the region from a Trans Mountain pipeline oil spill.

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Link to open letter and background

Link for organizations to sign onto the open letter

For media inquiries:

  • Reykia Fick, Communications Director, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), 647-762-9168, media@cape.ca
  • Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President, Union of BC Indian Chiefs, 250-490-5314, president@ubcic.ca
  • Pete Fry, Vancouver City Councillor, 604-873-7246, pete.fry@vancouver.ca
  • Kate McMahon, Team Lead, For Our Kids Burnaby, burnaby@forourkids.ca
  • Tim Takaro, MD, MPH. Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University, 604-838-7458, ttakaro@sfu.ca
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