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The Douglas Channel at dusk in Kitimat, B.C., last January.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Chronic, ship-source discharges of oily effluent pose a larger problem than large-scale catastrophic oil spills, lawyers for Nature Canada told the panel weighing the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Chris Tollefson, lawyer for the non-profit conservation group, questioned a panel of company experts Monday – the opening day of the hearings in Prince Rupert – about the company's assessment of the project's impacts on marine birds. He said the area that would be traversed by 220 oil tankers annually is home to hundreds of at-risk species, including the endangered marbled murrelet, great blue heron, horned grebe and black-footed albatross.

"The literature says that the cumulative effects of chronic oiling on marine birds is greater than the impact of catastrophic oil spills. Would you agree that that's what the literature says?" Mr. Tollefson asked Jeff Green, who was responsible for the project's environmental assessment for Calgary-based Enbridge.

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Such chronic, or "mystery" spills, can be as large as tanker spills, Mr. Green agreed, but they occur in different regions and in smaller volumes, and therefore behave differently. The growing awareness of the problem has resulted in a call for increased surveillance and increased enforcement of laws that prevent ship-source discharges, he said.

"So, yes, it is a problem. There's absolutely no question it's a problem: Oil and birds are not a good combination," Mr. Green said.

But recreational boats, fishing vessels, urban runoff and sewage are sources of mystery oil, Mr. Green said, as well as natural seepage from offshore oil deposits in the Pacific. Authorized discharges are legally limited to an amount that does not have a significant impact on wildlife. Discharges above that amount are illegal under the Canada Shipping Act, he said.

"The project is going to fully comply with all regulation and laws. That is our firm expectation," said John Carruthers, president of Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, one of nearly two dozen experts who will testify under oath at the hearings.

But Mr. Tollefson pointed out that Enbridge has not disclosed all partners in the Northern Gateway project, and questioned whether the company can make that guarantee.

"Is the difficulty that we don't know who the shippers will be and we don't know whether they will follow the laws of Canada?" he asked.

"No. They're required to follow the laws of Canada, whether it's oil tankers or any ships of any [kind]," Mr. Carruthers said.

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Mr. Green pointed out that the 220 ships expected to transport oil from Kitimat would represent just 3 per cent of the ship traffic in the region.

Nature Canada is concerned that vessel strikes, oil spills, and habitat and prey disturbance could have catastrophic effects on marine birds along the tanker route and near the tanker port. Mr. Green said an assessment found there would not be significant effects on marine birds from routine operations.

The effects of oil spills will be dealt with later in the hearings. The panel will sit for a week and will come back to Prince Rupert for another 10 weeks of hearings in the new year.

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