Dreaming that a B.C. pipeline leaks, dodging the grizzly bears

Guest Opinion: Environmental campaigner David Ellis writes about a foray into south central British Columbia to look at a pipeline in south central British Columbia where the Canadian government would like to send Alberta oil on its way to the Pacific.
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Oil tanker at Kinder Morgan pipeline terminal

Guest Opinion: Environmental campaigner David Ellis writes about a foray into south central British Columbia to look at a pipeline in south central British Columbia where the Canadian government would like to send Alberta oil on its way to the Pacific.

It was spring in the British Columbia coast mountains: A glorious time, no mosquitoes yet, here in the high country, 4,100 feet up, the sun felt hot; you are closer to it up here. The last of the snow patches were still hanging on in the shade of the aromatic balsam firs. Several times that day, I had pulled balsam needles off as I passed, crushed them and put them to my nose. The scent was exhilarating. The roar and murmur of streams and runoff was everywhere; my boots were soaked from fording three swollen creeks.

I was hiking the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, a pipeline that few know is already carrying tar sands oil or "dilbit", through southern B.C. The Enbridge proposal, to carry tar sands oil across central B.C., has been all but canceled. But with the Canadian environmental groups now ravaged by Canadian federal government actions, even David Suzuki (who I worked for once) has had to resign from his foundation's board for fear his opinions could hurt its tax status. Now, little attention is being brought to the existence of this old pipeline, as only a few environmental groups and some brave individuals, are speaking out against a massive, Canadian government-supported lobby to expand and "twin" this pipeline to take oll from Alberta to the British Columbia coast for export to Asia. This lobby is now descending on the people of the interior of B.C., many of whom are still out of work since the housing crisis in the United States all but closed down the logging industry, the province's mainstay.

I was hiking the old pipeline right-of-way, south from the Tulameen Road to the Coquihalla "jump off" (where the old pipe suddenly drops 1,000 feet, in just more than a mile) on a hunch. Something had told me it might be fruitful (in terms of finding oil spills) if I approached it from the north this time. The pipe was now 60 years old, and the website of the massive Kinder Morgan corporation was saying the Trans Mountain pipe "was as good as it ever was." It was my quest to do all that one man could do to try to stop what seemed the inevitable: a massive spill destroying the Fraser River — the heart and soul of the province of British Columbia.

Before I left my vehicle, I had listened, every 30 minutes, to radio ads in which the self-assured voice of the president of Kinder Morgan Canada, Ian Anderson, was asking the rural people of B.C., to help make the twinning project "better." He was, very aggressively, just saying the new project, and the old pipe, were already an essential part of the Canadian economy. Was he not ever planning to take his grandson salmon fishing in B.C.?

But the scent of the balsam fir was also, I reminded myself, the smell, of grizzly bear habitat. And with the three accounts I had heard this spring of grizzly in the area, the local grizzlies were clearly on the rebound. So I could meet one at anytime, and this year the grizzlies really seemed to be presenting themselves to me. I was just coming back from a bookselling trips to the Chilcotin and Bella Coola, where I saw four grizzlies — that makes eight for this year after the four I saw earlier on the Nass lava beds. A Chilcotin, or Tsilhqot'in, librarian had said, after I told her of my encounters, that they "don't feel threatened" by me.

Well I am very much a believer, also a modern witness, to Native American spirituality, and such a comment is as flattering to me as it would be to Kevin Costner. But these are among the few animals that can and will very quickly kill you, if they meet you close up and get flustered. I moved to a hollow before a sudden rise in the pipeline right of way, a mile at the most north of the jump off. The wind was full in my face, just as it had been when I had met one when I was 17, near Whistler Mountain. That day, I had truly learned the meaning of the word, "terror." And with my recent luck, I will meet one again, eyeball to eyeball, as I go over that rise up ahead. I better really look out for tracks or bear shit. I looked down and saw.....oil. OIL!

Well not an oil spill, just an oily film on the water flowing up and through the mossy right-of-way, over an area about 30 by 30 feet, one of those marshy places where you did not know if you will suddenly get a wet boot. I don't think I need to report this, I thought. How could a high-pressure pipeline have a small leak? It is probably just some oil rising from an old discarded oil can from years ago. But then there was the press quote in June from a Kinder Morgan official regarding the spill at Kingsvale, some 20 miles north: "It’s difficult to say how long oil had been escaping. I would say it was a matter of days or weeks rather than months or years, it was a very, very, very slow leak. It’s almost classified as a weep.”

Is this a "weep," about to be a "spill?" Kinder Morgan will not have spotted this from its helicopter fly-overs, just as these fly-overs had not spotted the Kingsvale "weep" (see below). It was found by a crew who just happened to be repairing the pipe nearby. But I could see no recent vehicle treads as I hiked the pipeline: It looked like there had been no ground inspection yet this spring.

Kinder should be hiking this daily, I thought. The Fraser River, is at risk! What an insult to us in the far west, pushing us for yet more pipelines, full of lots of very nasty oil that will destroy what we value the most. 

Up and over the little hump I went, no bear, or even deer. I came to a small lake before the "jump off" and noted a) no trout were rising, and b) pieces of styrofoam were to be seen around the edges — the same styrofoam chunks seen on an inspection of the lower part of the "jump off" a few weeks ago. Perhaps the pipe when lowered into place in the treacherous "jump off" was protected by this. I sell a book with a picture of them lowering the pipe here, way back then, page 57. Even the University of B.C., special collections, does not have this book now, I thought, as I made a mental note to show them a copy this summer. Many major historical documents no longer now make their way into the few archives we have in B.C., in the days of declining budgets and staff and "digitalization."

The wind hit me really hard in the face as I looked over and down the jump off to the Coquihalla canyon. Looking down in the soft soil, I saw tracks. Kinder Morgan tracks. Or, more probably, National Energy Board tracks, I guessed, for in an inspection with the Kamloops press a few weeks ago, we had also noticed mild treads. These are not the year-round maintenance Kinder men tracks. They might even be from a car that had driven down to the jump off. You had to have keys to get into the access road. Why the sudden inspection after I emailed them my last report? (An e-campaign of mine maintained total transparency. I was e-sending to the environmental community and Kinder Morgan personnel and also to the Prime Minister of Canada and the RCMP, who were, according to the press, now apparently tracking the environmentalists, now considered a "threat to national security." My policy was to consider the men in red still on my side, and in fact I had received positive feedback from them regarding my pipeline public safety concerns.)

Perhaps the higher-ups in both Kinder and the Energy Board did not even know of the jump off, and had come to see it. People are retiring early these days, and corporate and government memories are getting shorter, especially when companies so often change ownership. After the recent local spill, a press article had noted: "Although he did not know how old this specific section of the Trans Mountain pipe is, (as various repairs and maintenance has been done on the pipeline over the years) Garanyk [a Kidder Morgan employee] did say the pipeline in general has been in operation since 1953." The same goes for the National Energy Board. Perhaps my emails were making them do some research. None of them had ordered the very rare book I sold, on this pipeline. But don't pat yourself on the back, Dave, they might well be closely auditing your every email, but it is very, very unlikely that you are ever going to have any influence at all on the plans of the multi-billion dollar oil industry. But Rachel Carson never gave up, so why should I? After all, it was turning out to be really fun, being a "pipeline basher."

I first heard of the recent spill nearby from a person at one of my book sales. That night, I dreamed it, I even located it geographically, in my mind. And then yesterday I had walked down the Terasen gas right of way, beside the Kinder line, and there was the spill site, spotlights and all, exactly where I had dreamed it, just to the north of the repair site. What are odds of that?

I thought of the great book "Maps and Dreams" by Hugh Brody, who had gotten to know the Beaver (Dunneza) First Nations people, of Northern B.C., who I had visited and sold books to a year ago. It is often in your dreams that you actually bring together all of the technical data, also your spiritual self, with the fragments of other information from many sources in your mind. The Beaver people lived and still live in a vast land where moose are actually quite scarce; and finding, or remembering, a good hunting area took some creative dreaming. So did finding pipeline leaks.

On a number of occasions as I had traveled by the pipeline this spring, I had quickly visited a site, near the near Kingsvale spill, that was being "daylighted" (oilman talk for "dug out") so a section of corroded pipe, located by means of GPS (so kindly provided for free by the U.S. military) could be repaired. The repair men, who I silently watched one day from a distance, had tried to make a "culvert" of permeable stream pebbles, on each side of the flagged area, to get drainage. But things did not go well; water continued to flow down the pipe and filled the hole where the pipe was being daylighted. When I came the next week late one evening, there were no warning signs, no barriers, on the access road, and I drove right up to the pit to look down at the exposed 60-year-old pipe. The requirement by the National Energy Board is the "maintenance of fencing around any exposed pipeline."  What a shock! Could I take them to court? Could the National Energy Board?

The daylighted site had continued to fill with water, and the pipe was left exposed for weeks as the crew struggled to finish the job. The hole had to be pumped, so that repairs could continue. When the spill occurred nearby, the hole was still open, and the entire repair crew and all the equipment had to be driven right by this mess.

In fact, I believe two things caused the leak to finally blow a) the weeks of heavy equipment disturbance at this nearby repair site, and b) accumulation of corrosion causing-sediment as the pipeline takes a sudden jog upward near here. This is why, in 740 miles of pipeline, there was suddenly a break, near a repair site — because the heavy equipment so often vibrated the pipe. But, mainly, corrosion is everywhere corroding the protective coating of the pipeline.

I can already hear the Kinder technical staff fuming, when it reads of my "theories." No, I am not a pipeline expert. But I have accumulated 62 years of common sense as I have roamed this great province.

And maybe I am now learning to dream, as well as some of my First Nations friends.


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