Bitumen tankers in confined waters

28 August 2012

Secretary to the Joint Review Panel
Enbridge Northern Gateway Project
444 Seventh Ave SW
Calgary AB T2P 0X8


Dear Secretary ;

I wish to express my serious concern over the logic of shipping, on a regular basis, huge quantities of diluted bitumen in very large tankers through the confined, often treacherous internal waters of northern BC, out into Hecate Strait, and thence to the Pacific.

During 35 years at sea spent largely in BC waters, I sailed the Central / North Coast in ten commercial and naval vessels. My principal involvement grew to be watch keeping, navigation, and the duties of command (XO HMCS STETTLER and PROVIDER; 3rd Officer / Navigator Canadian Cruise Lines SS PRINCE GEORGE; Captain HMCS QU’APPELLE and MACKENZIE).

Fair weather navigation in Douglas Channel, Squally Reach and Caamano Sound requires precision and watchfulness even in a small vessel. The dangers attending a breakdown, miss-step or inattention escalate dramatically as vessel dimensions (and turning characteristics, stopping distance etc.) increase. The deeper the ship’s draft the more constrained the navigable channel becomes. Strong tidal streams and rapidly deteriorating weather further complicate and can wreck the best laid plans for safe navigation.

I have sailed those waters in the flat calm of a sunny summer day, in fog, and in the driving rain squalls and buffeting of an autumn gale. I don’t know Principe Channel, but believe it is no more forgiving of error than the rest of the Inside Passage. As for Hecate Strait, my experience is that it can be idyllic and peaceful at one moment and then, within short hours, become a place of howling winds and mountainous seas such as cause the most experienced seafarers to grit their teeth and hang on tight. I was in the frigate STETTLER there one night when the ship rolled 60 degrees to port, sustaining considerable damage down below. On another occasion, as my friends in the Fleet Oiler PROVIDER related it, the 20,000 ton ship so nearly ‘stood on her nose’ amid the monstrous waves of that extremely shallow sea, that some on the bridge were concerned she might strike bottom. Recognized as the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world, twenty per cent of Hecate Strait has water depth less than 20 metres. I wonder how a vessel drawing 60 or 70 feet might fare in a Hecate Strait storm.

Risk is the product of the likelihood of an occurrence and the consequences thereof. Modern machinery, navigation aids, communications etc. can have a near-zero failure rate, but the people who operate the equipment, though better educated and trained than ever, always have been and likely will remain the major stumbling block to a foolproof system. Look no further than TITANIC, EXXON VALDES, QUEEN of the NORTH, COSTA CONCORDIA. The likelihood of a significant tanker accident between Kitimat and the Pacific may be extremely low but it is finite.

Meanwhile it appears that, as yet, nobody – not even Enbridge – has studied seriously the possibility of a major spill of diluted bitumen in northern BC waters. The outcome could be horrendous. I read that the Canadian Coast Guard is uncertain whether traditional methods of containing and cleaning up a crude oil spill would work for bitumen. How would diluted bitumen be dispersed by wind, sea and tide compared to crude? Is it more likely than crude to sink as the lighter properties evaporate? What toxins does it contain? How would all living things within the scope of such a spill be affected? If not contained or recovered, for how long would it persist as an environmental hazard?

From what the climatologists keep telling us these days and from our experience in recent seasons, it seems prudent to expect that extreme weather incidents will occur with increasing frequency in years to come. And consider: foreign ships do not always measure up to the highest standards of mechanical safety and crew competence.

Very big ships, very narrow channels and extreme weather don’t make a good mix.

I beg you to recognize that the finite likelihood of a tanker accident – no matter how remote-coupled with the potentially catastrophic consequences of a major spill of diluted bitumen into northern BC waters, together constitute a risk no thinking Canadian can afford to accept.

Yours Sincerely,

Roger Sweeny
Commander RCN ret.
Certificate of Service as Master Foreign Going
Qualified Master Home Trade
Member, Association of Suzuki Elders

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  • You did not mention how many years of the 30+ you have served on modern tankers stringently vetted by oil majors? At 60 degree rolling the vessel’s stability would be very questionable.

  • Roger – useful insights, well described, by someone who’s been there at the helm. Thank-you.

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