A review panel examining the Northern Gateway pipeline heard vastly different assessments Thursday of just how damaging an oil spill would be to the British Columbia coast, with natives from the Haida Gwaii islands predicting a disaster and company experts insisting the effects of such a spill would be neither be permanent nor catastrophic.
Al Maki, who was the chief scientist for Exxon at the time of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska, said that disaster occurred in an environment similar to the B.C. coast and is one of the most studied spills in history.
"We did see recovery of most of those shorelines within two years following the spill," Mr. Maki told a hearing in Prince Rupert.
"Some of them had been very heavily oiled and had been subject to extensive cleaning. But within two years, we did have recovery of those ecosystems."
Oil was detected in the ocean floor, but forensic testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found the oil was due to natural seeps and degraded coal deposits, Mr. Maki said.
"The fact was the oil had … biodegraded to simple compounds before they were deposited in the benthic sediments, and so the results of the tests … showed that the sediments were not at all toxic," Mr. Maki said.
Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, lawyer for the Council of the Haida Nation, questioned Enbridge experts about the effects a marine spill would have on things such as the razor clams the Haida harvest commercially and the seaweed they dry and eat as a snack.
"It is a very important area to the Haida people," Ms. Williams-Davidson said, referring to the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve on the southern tip of the islands.
Miles away from Prince Rupert, across Hecate Strait and the proposed northern route of Northern Gateway tankers, she said, residents of Haida Gwaii were listening to the hearings being broadcast live over the Internet.
On the remote islands,
signs proclaiming opposition
to the project are pervasive, nailed to hydro poles and fences and even spelled out on the roadside sign of a auto-body shop.
Trevor Russ, vice-president of the Haida Nation, said the islands off the B.C. coast will bear the brunt of an oil spill.
"We have a mandate from our people going back a few years that we do whatever it takes to stop this pipeline project from going through," Mr. Russ said in an interview.
"The stand is very strong, in the Haida community and the non-Haida that reside on Haida Gwaii, are for the most part all opposed to the pipeline."
The company has said the odds of a tanker spill are one in 15,000.
"These are few and far between events," said Owen McHugh, a member of the Northern Gateway panel.
"In 2012, there was no large oil spill anywhere in the globe. Tanker safety has improved to a level that is unprecedented."
The panel has until the end of the year to produce a report and recommendations for the federal government, and the stakes are high.
A report released Thursday said the Canadian economy is losing $30-million to $70-million a day because of the inability to get western Canadian crude to more diverse markets.
The Alberta government recently warned of a $6-billion revenue shortfall this year.