How Would an Oil Spill Affect the San Juans?
The Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Georgia Straight Alliance have undertaken a research project to find out what would happen if an oil tanker began leaking into the Salish Sea, which is the collective name for the waters around southern Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands.
They are dropping biodegradable plywood drift cards into the water and seeing where they end up. Their path demonstrates the path an oil slick would take if it were to get into the currents. Over 1,000 have been dropped since last fall into the Burrard Inlet, the Fraser River, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The last one runs directly along the west side of San Juan Island.
“The drift card project was launched when Kinder Morgan filed an application to twin its Trans Mountain pipeline, which transports diluted bitumen from Edmonton to Burnaby,” said a recent report by the Oceanside Star. “If approved, it would increase the transportation capacity of the pipeline from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000. The number of tankers leaving the Westridge Marine Terminal each month to travel through the Port of Vancouver and the Salish Sea would increase to 37 from five.”
That’s a huge difference, and one that could have a serious affect on the quality of life for animal and human residents alike here in our islands. Most of the time when we see a vessel on the horizon, it is a whale-watching or fishing boat. When we do see the occasional oil tanker, it is looming far off in the distance, perhaps lulling us into a false sense of security that something as awful as an oil spill could never reach into our little island paradise. If the pipeline is approved, we might well see the tankers several times a week, and the increase in potential for disaster is cause for concern.
Everyone remembers the horror of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, often called the most devastating environmental tragedy in U.S. history. A quarter of a million seabirds were killed, along with almost 3,000 otters, 250 bald eagles, and 22 killer whales, not to mention untold amounts of fish.
There are only 80 current members of our southern resident orca population; barely enough to keep the community reproducing properly. It is almost unthinkable to consider what an oil spill would do to that population.
The card-dropping project was first established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); they have dropped about 50,000 cards into waters surrounding Hawaii, California and Florida during the past decade. The Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Georgia Straight Alliance hope to use the same method to prove that our area is vastly underprepared for an oil spill.
Click here to see a current map of the drift cards and learn more about the project.