No Ship is Sailor-Proof
A retired Master Mariner explains the folly of using fossil-fuel carriers in B.C. coastal waters
by Roger Sweeny
I was born in Vancouver and grew up on the coast, much of that time spent in and around Howe Sound. I have been involved with the sea since I was 15. My teen summers were spent on a fish packer where I saw a lot out on the fishing grounds, including by-catch thrown away to die. I worked on a tug towing log booms, which brought home to me the desecration of our coastal forests.
I qualified at the Canadian Services College Royal Roads and served with the RCN for 32 years, retiring in 1980 with the rank of Commander. I possessed a Certificate of Service as Master Foreign Going and subsequently earned certification as Master Home Trade. All in all I served in 18 naval and merchant vessels, was Executive Officer of three and Captain of two.
Three events in my later service years helped shape my mind towards environmental activism.
- on a flag-planting flight from Resolute Bay to the North Pole in the spring of 1970 our aircraft was never out of sight of open sea;
- during a 10-day voyage from the Bering Sea to Hawaii in 1971 our ship was never out of sight of floating garbage;
- my 1976 posting as Nuclear Weapons Planning Officer on the NATO naval staff in Denmark alerted me to the massive deceit common to both sides of the arms race as well as to the potential horrors of nuclear conflict.
Since retirement I have grown increasingly aware that Earth’s most pressing problems are human-caused or human-exacerbated. In my own sphere, long years of dealing with men, ships and the sea have taught me that sea accidents almost invariably can be attributed to HPtFtU (the Human Proclivity to Foul things Up).
No matter how sound the vessel, how comprehensive the navigation and safety system, how strict the rules, how competent and well-led the crew, nothing is totally sailor-proof. A transfer valve left unserviced, a radar left unmonitored, an autopilot that should have been switched off, a misunderstood order, fatigue, complacency, hubris, disagreement between Captain and pilot or between pilots – these and a thousand more examples of human folly produce sea accidents. As long as humans sail in ships there will be screw-ups.
- north coast tides, currents and storms militate against safe passage of huge tankers in restricted waters of Douglas Channel and shallow, boisterous Hecate Strait;
- despite assurances of world class response capability, a big dilbit spill on the north coast would be virtually impossible to clean up;
- tankers and crews not all up to Canadian standards;
- A 60,000 tonne cargo of LNG carries the heat equivalent of six dozen Hiroshima atomic bombs;
- the Society of International Gas Tanker and Terminal Operators (SIGTTO) safe location standards for gas terminals rules out Woodfibre as an LNG port (and SIGTTO’s ‘zero acceptable probability of a catastrophic LNG release’ criterion is recognized world-wide);
- Sandia National Laboratories’ recommended minimum safety separation zone around LNG tankers is 3500m, which overlaps far beyond much of the channel out of Howe Sound and endangers other marine traffic and the lives of thousands of Howe Sound residents;
Kinder Morgan Expansion:
- situated in the midst of a million + people;
- strong tides, currents, two major bridges and the traffic of a major seaport to transit;
- based on KM’s own experts’ assessments, the Concerned Engineers of BC calculate a 10% chance of a major (69,000 bbl) bitumen spill over a 50 year operating period;
- dilbit (bitumen diluted with gas condensates) tends to sink as noxious solvents evaporate, thus spreading pollution below intertidal zone as well as into atmosphere’
- potential for major public health hazard;
For the past 2 years I have concentrated on these issues at the expense of full participation in other Suzuki Elder activities. A notable exception was my happy success (with help) in persuading the West Vancouver Council to pass the Blue Dot resolution. I continue to work closely with the Dogwood Initiative and with members of My Sea to Sky and The Future of Howe Sound on these issues.
During the recent Canadian federal election I became (strategically) fully involved in the campaign to oust the sitting MP for the West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country electoral district which embraces Howe Sound. That goal thankfully achieved, now begins the big push to remind our elected representatives that
- 100% renewable energy is goal one and is attainable;
- 80% of fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground; and,
- safety of life and limb is paramount.