Coastal residents oppose tanker traffic

A former B.C. environment minister has returned from a three-day tour of B.C.'s North Coast in preparation for next week's debate on a federal bill to ban oil tanker traffic through B.C.'s coastal waters.

Debate on a private member's bill to bolster a 1972 ban begins March 28

In this photo taken March 26, 1989, the Exxon Baton Rouge attempts to offload crude oil from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound. Liberal MP Joyce Murray toured northern B.C. coastal communities in March 2011 in preparation for debate on a bill that would ban tanker traffic off the northern B.C. coast. (Associated Press)

A former B.C. environment minister has returned from a three-day tour of B.C.'s North Coast in preparation for next week's debate on a federal bill to ban oil tanker traffic through B.C.'s coastal waters.

"Most of the people that came to the meetings were strongly against the idea of oil being transported through the inland waters up on the North Coast," Joyce Murray, the MP for Vancouver Quadra, said.

"They see it as a risk to the communities, the jobs, the wildlife, the fisheries in that area, and they don't see that there's much in it for them or their communities."

In preparation for the debate, the Liberal MP visited Kitimat, Terrace and Prince Rupert where she held community meetings, conversations with local governments and teleconferences with the more remote communities.

"I felt that it was important to go up and listen to people in the affected communities, answer questions, clarify what my bill does and doesn't cover."

Private member's bill C-606, which she introduced in the House of Commons three months ago, proposes to amend the 2001 Canada Shipping Act to ban oil tanker traffic in parts of B.C.

It would not affect existing port activities or oil delivery for use in B.C. remote communities, she said.

A proposal to allow tankers to move oil down the coast from a proposed pipeline to Kitimat from Alberta's oilsands is before the National Energy Board, which has no representatives from B.C.

'Crazy wild' weather

Though some of the hundreds of residents with whom Murray has spoken were interested in jobs and other possible benefits of the pipeline and port use, the overwhelming feedback was that residents wanted to continue the moratorium.

The company proposing the pipeline initially said that 20 jobs would be created, but has since said there would be more, she said, but far more jobs in fisheries and tourism could be at risk.

"Everyone that came to the meetings are people who are from communities who co-exist with the coastal ecosystem. They know how crazy wild weather on the northwest coast can be," she said.

"They also know how important it is for the communities that we don't have a massive oil spill disaster."

Murray's northern tour follows a series of meetings in communities on Vancouver Island's eastern coast — Campbell River, Comox, Parksville, Nanaimo, Cowichan Bay and Victoria — where she heard similar concerns. Public meetings had anywhere from eight to 50 people in attendance, she said.

B.C.'s coastal First Nations, the Union of B.C. Municipalities and an overwhelming majority of British Columbians are opposed to the proposal, Murray said.

While most of the benefits go elsewhere, the risks are local.

"We have seen in the Gulf of Mexico how this can affect the ecosystem and the jobs and the fisheries," Murray said.

The Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 in Prince William Sound is still affecting regional fisheries in Alaska, she said.

"A spill is inevitable over time, and it would be irreversible," she said.

The Conservative government won't recognize a 1972 moratorium on tanker traffic in the inland waters around Haida Gwaii known as Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound, Murray said.

While private member's bills rarely succeed, Murray pointed out this is a minority government. She thinks she can get enough support from the other parties to pull it off.

Debate on the bill is scheduled to begin March 28.

With files from the CBC's Mike Clarke in Vancouver