Fears about an oil spill were top of mind at a public hearing in Timmins last night on the proposed Energy East pipeline, which could see an existing pipe that crosses Northern Ontario converted from natural gas to oil.

Eric Giroux, who is with a union representing engineers in the region who work on the pipeline, said the project will mean hundreds of construction jobs, plus more permanent work for his members. The members work for the International Union of Operating Engineers.

But Giroux said he also supports the pipeline as a citizen.

timmins pipeline meeting

Timmins residents look over maps at the Energy East pipeline hearings held in the city Tuesday night. The debate over a proposed oil pipeline is the latest in northern Ontario to pit the environment against the economy. (Erik White/CBC)

"I'm a hunter, trapper, fisherman and I think this the way to go. It's the safest one. Just remember what happened in Lac Megantic."

But Amrose Raftis from the Temiskaming Environmental Action Committee said this pipeline would bring that Quebec disaster closer to home.

"In every one of these communities, people will be taking on the risk of becoming another Lac Megantic,” Raftis said.

“Except, instead of there being a few dozen isolated train cars, there'll be [a] 30 km long pipeline filled with mixed crude."

'Expect resistance'

Edmond Etherington of Moose Cree First Nation said he fears that, if a natural gas pipeline along Highway 11 is converted to oil, that one day a spill in the south will make its way to the far north.

timmins pipeline meeting

The proposed Energy East pipeline would see an existing natural gas pipe that crosses northern Ontario converted to oil. A public hearing in Timmins heard from those who are for and against the project on Tuesday night. (Erik White/CBC)

"It'll cross every major river that leads to the James Bay Coast. We live at the end of the river. So, we're going to get all the garbage,” he said.

"I'm telling you right now: expect resistance.”

Many people at the meeting focused on the potential for spills — especially with a 50-year-old pipeline.

But others, like Matheson Mayor Mike Milinkovich, said the small risk is worth the big reward.

"We all face risks in our everyday lives,” he said, adding most people in his town see the TransCanada pipeline as a good neighbour and don't expect that will change if one of the pipes carries oil.

What Milinkovich does expect is a greater economic benefit, with the pipeline already paying 20 per cent of the taxes the town collects.

"We badly need the tax revenues and the new jobs."

The opinions shared at these hearings, which move to North Bay Wednesday evening, will eventually form a report that the Ontario government will use to decide which side it takes when a final decision on this pipeline is made.