Vopak Pacific Canada

North Coast oil-by-rail and tanker project to ship diesel oil and other bitumen refinery products

Luanne Roth

Photo by Roy Luck CC, cropped from original

Canadian National Railway has quietly invested hundreds of millions of dollars on the Prince Rupert port rail terminal and rail line upgrades to Alberta. The Vopak project, proposed for Prince Rupert harbour near the mouth of the Skeena River (and near Lelu Island of Pacific Northwest LNG fame), would tie into this infrastructure to load Panamax class oil tankers, each one capable of holding 500,000 barrels of petroleum product.

CN claims their rail line can handle ten trains per day from Alberta, each train carrying 50,000 barrels, enough to fill one Panamax every day. This project will bring oil tankers to the North Coast for the first time, yet it is slipping under the radar.

Environmental concerns

Bill C-48, the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, which is  not yet law, only covers “persistent oil” – thus, refined petroleum products such as diesel, methanol, gasoline, etc. can still be shipped by tanker on the North Coast. The products proposed for the Vopak project are refined, and the majority are highly toxic – for example, methanol (which is completely soluble in water) and diesel.

When asked what would happen if there was a diesel spill, Dr. Chris Kennedy, an aquatic toxicologist, explained that diesel oil “contains chemicals which dissolve in water and will result in rapid acute toxicity,” and that “in terms of toxicity to water-column organisms, diesel is considered to be one of the most acutely toxic oil types.”

As a result of poor holding ground for anchorage and very high tides and currents in Prince Rupert harbor, marine incidents are common. In this area of critical salmon habitat, a marine incident resulting in a toxic product spill would be disastrous.

Other concerns include derailment along the rail line which closely follows the Skeena River for over 100 kilometres, impacts to communities along the route, who would be subjected to emissions from hundreds of railcars, tankers passing Haida Gwaii, and of course greenhouse gas emissions.

Will there be a marine risk assessment?

Vopak’s potential magnitude is similar to the Trans Mountain expansion, yet the project is not undergoing a full environmental assessment by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. The limited process underway is being led by the Prince Rupert Port Authority and the BC Environmental Assessment Office. The draft terms of reference they presented did not plan for proper assessment of rail tank car emissions along the route or potential toxic product spills from either train derailments or anchoring and other marine incidents.

What can the public do?

Write to the Honourable Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, asking that Vopak be designated for a full EA under the CEAA. ec.ministre-minister.ec@canada.ca

Luanne Roth, editor of The Salmon Recipes, recently organized technical submissions on PNW and Aurora, two LNG projects since withdrawn.

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