Conservative Party Candidate Says Oil is Natural, Spills Just Absorbed by Land

Sabrina Zuniga, the Conservative party candidate running in the riding of Spadina-Fort York in Ontario, was caught on tape claiming that "oil is a natural substance… so spilling into the environment, the land will absorb it because that's what oil is."

Zuniga's riding is in close proximity to the route of the Enbridge Line 9B pipeline, which may soon be carrying diluted bitumen from the Alberta oilsands through the Greater Toronto Area.

Here's the clip care of Buzzfeed Canada:

Zuniga's opinion is somewhat misguided.

First of all, not all oil spills happen on land.

Just this past April a bulk carrier spilled thick, toxic bunker fuel into Vancouver's scenic English Bay. The accident exposed Vancouver's lack of spill response preparedness and left resident's in a state of disbelief as 'tarballs' spread out across the city's famous beaches. City officials had to plead with over-eager residents not to engage in volunteer clean up because the fuel is dangerously toxic.

A 2007 study done into the effects of a bunker fuel spill in San Francisco found the toxic effects of the oil killed off herring stocks and produced birth defects and shorter lifespans in other fish species.

The fuel that spilled in the water posed a significant challenge to clean up crews because bunker fuel is dense and viscous and not prone to floating on the water's surface. Opponents to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion argue a similar issue will arise in the event of a bitumen tanker spill in B.C.'s waters.

And it turns out there's no baseline data for Vancouver's waters, nor are there any long-term monitoring programs in place. The Stephen Harper government axed the only research program that studied industrial pollutants in marine mammals. So the actual effects of that spill on the local environment will remain a frustrating mystery.

When oil does spill on land it is by no means simply reabsorbed by the environment, as Zuniga suggests.

In 2011 a Plains Midstream pipeline fractured in the Woodland Cree reserve in Alberta, north of Peace River, spilling 28,000 barrels of crude into forest and muskeg. The regulator in Alberta at the time, the Energy Resources Conservation Board, said the location of the spill posed significant challenges for clean up. Toxic substances like toulene were found to have migrated through the wetlands away from the main spill site and posed significant health risks to human and animal health.

While the oil was spilling out into the environment, chemical vapours migrated to an elementary school 12 kilometres away where children experienced dizziness and nausea before the principal announced an emergency closure of the school. 

In 2010 an Enbridge pipeline ruptured near a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The pipeline spilled 1.1 million gallons of diluted bitumen from the Alberta oilsands into the river system where it settled and mixed with sediment on the riverbed. Diluted bitumen is toxic to human health and aquatic species. 

The spill spanned more than 25 kilometres and with a price tag of over $1 billion it is the costliest spill in North American history. 

So, although Zuniga would like to suggest oil spills, which are a central concern to communitites along the routes of the Northern Gateway, Trans Mountain, Energy East and Enbridge's Line 9 pipelines, are no big deal, that's clearly not the case.

It doesn't serve Zuniga's campaign to downplay the significance of oil spills, nor will it serve her constitutents. 

Read our summary of where the main federal parties running in the Canadian election stand on the related issue of climate change.

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