The Tyee – Vancouver Oil Sands Tanker Spill Could Cause Evacuation Nightmare
Stinking. Toxic. Explosive. These words could describe the cloud of fumes filling the airshed of the Lower Mainland if there was a tanker spill of diluted bitumen in Vancouver harbour. The public health emergency and potential evacuation of large parts of the city might easily overshadow the more well known consequences of an oil spill as local authorities struggle to move hundreds of thousands of people out of harm’s way.
This nightmare scenario for Vancouver residents and local emergency planners has been created by a confluence of global forces, corporate decisions and lack of government oversight that may result in a steep increase in tanker shipments of hazardous cargo through the “greenest city in the world” and regional home to more than two million people.
Companies operating in the oil sands are increasingly shipping unrefined bitumen because it is more profitable for them to refine it elsewhere. This lack of value-added processing, supported by the Harper government, not only limits the long-term employment and economic benefits of bitumen extraction, it also creates enormous public safety hazards downstream.
Bitumen is too thick to pump through a pipeline so it must be diluted with a variety of volatile and toxic chemicals imported from elsewhere around the world. This mixture is called “diluted bitumen” and is more abrasive, corrosive and acidic than conventional crude, and typically must be piped under higher temperatures and pressures — raising the risk of pipeline failures.
The additional risk is that the toxic solvents used to dilute bitumen can quickly evaporate when released into the environment, increasing public safety risks and complicating clean-up efforts if the heavy bitumen sinks into water.
When the pipeline carrying diluted bitumen ruptured near Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2010, these chemicals began off-gassing into the local area, acutely impacting the health of almost 60 per cent of residents living within a mile of the spill.
People reported nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds, headaches, coughing and dizziness from exposure to chemicals such as benzene and toluene, which are known carcinogens.
Local authorities implemented a three-week voluntary evacuation of residents to limit exposure to dangerous levels of benzene detected in the air more than a mile from the creek where the spill occurred.
Even weeks after the accident local residents reported smelling strong chemical odors up to 50 kilometres away.
Few escape routes …