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Benzene Gas from Kinder Morgan Bitumen Spill Could Endanger 1 Million Vancouverites, Hospitalize 31,000

The Economist says Vancouver is liveable, but boring. Clearly they haven’t read its latest evidence against Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

As part of its final package of evidence in the NEB’s review of the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker expansion, the City of Vancouver solicited expert testimony on how air quality would be impacted by a spill in Burrard Inlet.

The 53-page report prepared by Richmond-based Levelton Consultants has the same underlying thread of doom featured in much of Vancouver’s other evidence. The key difference? This time there’s a possible human body count.

Benzene, Bitumen and the Human Body

In order to make bitumen transportable it is diluted with a mix of natural gas condensates. This mixture often includes toxic impurities like hydrogen sulphide, cyclohexane and aromatics like benzene, toluene and xylene.

These chemicals are liquid at room temperature, but evaporate quickly when exposed to air, and are extremely toxic to humans. Benzene in particular can cause major, permanent and irreversible damage to immune system cellular function. Possible health impacts of exposure include drowsiness, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, headaches, tremors, confusion, unconsciousness and death. It also adheres to mucous membranes like those in the eyes, nose, lungs and skin, causing irritation.

Air quality experts measure potential impacts by PAC (Proactive Action Criteria) exposure levels, with 1 being the lowest and 3 the highest.

According to Levelton Consultants modelling of a possible major bitumen spill at the Lion’s Gate Bridge:

“There are predicted benzene PAC-2 exceedances over water and land areas, however, not in areas where people live according to the Statistics Canada census data (2011). The exceedances of the benzene PAC-2 levels have been predicted for areas where people may be present including Stanley Park, Lions Gate Bridge, Second Narrows Bridge and over water.”

In simpler terms: If people were overcome by the effects of the benzene and were unable to leave the contaminated area and seek medical help — for example, drivers on the Lions Gate bridge stuck in traffic or pedestrians and cyclists on the Seawall — there is a risk of severe permanent health impacts, including death.

Two other figures in the report are worthy of concern.

The first is 31,400 – the number of potential people living within the 42 square kms around the spill area who would be exposed to benzene levels above PAC 1 and may require hospitalization. Side fact: The Vancouver Coastal Health region has only 1,384 beds available in their 'acute care' department. How they would accommodate the sudden possible influx of 31,400 patients is unclear.

The second figure is 133,100 to 1,077,700 — the range of people living in Vancouver who would be exposed to levels of benzene that exceed acute exposure limits (or the maximum safe amount a person can be exposed to without adverse health impacts). The estimates are based on 2011 Census data, and do not account for tourists or visitors who may be in the exposed area at the time of a spill.

While the maximum predicted one-hour concentrations of benzene decrease below PAC level 1 threshold six hours after an oil spill, its levels still remain above the maximum safe amount.

"The Risks and Costs Outweigh the Benefits"

This new research is coupled with information released earlier this month including spill modelling, impacts on wildlife, negative impacts on real estate values, etc. In short, city staff concluded that the pipeline was ‘not needed in a carbon-constrained world’ and that the Kinder Morgan’s assessment has fundamental flaws that ‘systematically underestimates’ the very real risks to Vancouver.

In their opinion, a major oil spill would be a disaster for Vancouver’s environment, economy, health and reputation, with even a less than ‘worse case’ spill being disastrous. And since the pipeline project was designed with an oil price of $94/barrel in mind, there is a real risk of the expanded pipeline becoming a stranded asset if oil prices remain where they are.

Vancouver City Council will reconvene in two weeks to decide on Mayor Gregor Robertson’s motion to accept the evidence and formally recommit its stance against Kinder Morgan.

These revelations come a day after the Tsleil-Waututh Nation revealed its independent assessment of the Kinder Morgan proposal. The massive report commissioned by the Tsleil-Waututh Sacred Trust, concludes:

“That the proposal does not represent the best use of Tsleil-Waututh territory and its water, land, air, and resources to satisfy the needs of our ancestors, and the needs of present and future generations. It has the potential to deprive past, current, and future generations of our community control and benefit of the water, land, air, and resources in our territory. The assessment recommends that Chief and Council continue to withhold Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s support.”

Oral hearings for the Kinder Morgan TransMountain proposal are scheduled to begin in September with a final recommendation from the National Energy Board expected on Jan 25, 2016.

Image Credit: Rob Sinclair via Flickr

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