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An oil tanker heads under the Second Narrows Bridge. ((CBC))

The number of tankers carrying crude oil through Vancouver's Burrard Inlet is increasing, and that's raising concerns in light of the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to Port Metro Vancouver, the amount of crude oil carried by tankers through Burrard Inlet has more than tripled in five years, reaching an all-time high of 65 tanker loads last year.

Veteran environmentalist Bill Gannon has been watching those numbers rise and thinks the tanker traffic should be stopped.

"Why are we taking the risk, risking our whole environment?" said Gannon, who is currently on the board of the Dogwood Initiative, a B.C. environmental group that has been campaigning to limit tanker traffic on the West Coast.

Port Metro Vancouver

Metric tonnes of crude oil exported via Westridge terminal

  • 2000: 8,404
  • 2001: 512,886
  • 2002: 805,596
  • 2003: 1,118,154
  • 2004: 452,003
  • 2005: 1,166,538
  • 2006: 1,311,648
  • 2007. 2,138,101
  • 2008: 2,208,847
  • 2009: 3,916,333

The crude oil is piped in from Alberta by Kinder Morgan to the Westport tanker terminal on the southeastern shore of Burrard Inlet in Burnaby.

After loading up at the terminal, the tankers have to navigate several narrow passages, three bridges, heavy boat traffic and strong currents before reaching the more open waters of English Bay.

Gannon fears a spill is inevitable and says the consequences could be devastating.

"The fishing industry will be totally down the drain. The beaches, all our beautiful beaches, gone," said Gannon.

Safety changes made

But officials with Port Metro Vancouver say they have just spent five years reviewing the procedures used for the passage of oil tankers.

As a result, the port authority is already making changes to reduce the risk of an accident as ships pass under the Second Narrows Bridge, said harbourmaster Yoss LeClerc.

"It's a new way to escort the ship that makes basically the ship very safe to transit through Second Narrows. The ship is tethered," said LeClerc.

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A tugboat manoeuvres a tanker near the Westport terminal. ((CBC))

But with those changes, tankers will also be allowed to carry a heavier load of oil on every trip.

Meanwhile, Kinder Morgan has long-term plans to double the pipeline's capacity and says it has a 50-year record of safe operation.

But in 2007 a construction crew inadvertently broke a Kinder Morgan pipeline in Burnaby, spraying oil across 50 homes in the neighbourhood and spilling it into Burrard Inlet.

Then in 2009, 200,000 litres of crude oil spilled from a storage tank on Burnaby Mountain operated by Kinder Morgan. The oil was captured by a containment bay surrounding the tank before any escaped into the environment.