The arrival of the oil tanker Minerva Gloria in the port of Sorel-Tracy Sunday opened a new chapter in the ongoing efforts of Quebeckers to resist shipments of diluted bitumen crude oil from Alberta through their communities.

Sorel-Tracy resident Elias Harvey said he’s seen many oil tankers in port over the years, but never one as large as the 250-metre long, 44 metre-wide Minerva Gloria.

Only a year ago, ships wider than 32 metres weren’t allowed in that part of the St. Lawrence River, but the federal government increased the allowable size in December 2013.

The Minerva Gloria is not only the first tanker of its size to arrive in Sorel-Tracy, but it will also be the first to carry diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands on the St. Lawrence River.

Since July, Suncor has been transporting diluted bitumen from Alberta by train to a storage facility in Sorel-Tracy owned by Kildair Services.

The Minerva Gloria’s arrival in Sorel-Tracy marks the start of the next phase of Suncor’s plans — the transfer of that oil to tankers ships for transport east.

Communities along the rail lines that carry the bitumen have mounted protests against Suncor’s shipments, and Harvey worries about what its transfer to tankers like Minerva Gloria could mean for the St. Lawrence River.

“There’s nothing in it for us. All it brings us is the threat of polluting the river,” Harvey told Radio-Canada. “It’s a poisoned present.”

Monique Hains and other members of the group Alerte Petrole Rive-Sud said a spill in the St. Lawrence would mean disaster for the environment and riverside communities.

“Imagine a spill, it would be catastrophic. Three million people rely on the St. Lawrence River for drinking water,” she said.

Tanker graphic

Suncor, however, says that risk is reduced by the fact all tankers carrying its oil feature a double hull.

In an email to Radio-Canada, the company also said there’s nothing about Alberta bitumen crude that makes it any more dangerous than other types of oil that are already being shipped on the St. Lawrence.

“Diluted bitumen does not have any properties that augment the risks in relation to conventional crude,” Suncor said.

The federal government also has controls in place that require tankers to meet specific safety standards. Canada’s inspection regime for tanker ships is also considered one of the most stringent in the world.

University of Rimouski professor Emmanuel Guy said the safety system that is currently in place is effective for the current level of tanker traffic on the St. Lawrence River.

However, he said it should be reviewed to take into consideration the larger ships and the increasing number of tankers.

“The risk is proportional to the level of activity. If there is a rise in the volume [of oil] being transported, it’s important to adjust safety precautions now, and not after the fact,” he said.

The Minerva Gloria is due to leave Sorel-Tracy at the start of next week. Radio-Canada reports that it will sail in the direction of the Gulf of Mexico, for a refinery in Lousiana or Texas.

It’s expected that 20 to 30 tankers will take on loads of bitumen crude every year from Sorel-Tracy.