Environment
In this May 3, 2018 photo, a camp set up by demonstrators opposed to the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline through the Canadian Rockies.
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In this May 3, 2018 photo, a camp set up by demonstrators opposed to the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline through the Canadian Rockies.
Credit: AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth

'Managing an aging pipeline is a bit like driving the wrong way down a freeway'

The Trans Mountain pipeline carries tar-sands oil to Washington state from Alberta — and now there’s a change in the response plan should it rupture, leak, or spill.

On the way to refineries in Anacortes and Ferndale, the pipeline crosses the Nooksack River as well as many other rivers and creeks that drain into Puget Sound.

If tar-sands oil "leaks into or spills into a river, it will sink to the bottom of the river,” said Eric de Place, with the environmental think tank Sightline Institute. “The river, of course, is moving, so it’s moving that product along.”

The new spill response plan, which Washington’s Department of Ecology approved on Wednesday, aims to deploy new technology that could theoretically clean up the oil before it sinks. Under the plan, contractors would bring in equipment to locate, contain, and recover the oil. The plan also calls for oil spill drills to test equipment and train staff.

Ecology estimates that a significant oil spill would cost Washington $10.8 billion in disruption to shipping and tourism and harm to fish and other wildlife.

Since the Trans Mountain pipeline was built in 1953, it has reported 82 spills to the Canadian government but only five spills on the spurs of the pipeline that pass through Washington.

The last major rupture in Washington, in 2000, spilled 35,000 gallons of crude oil in Whatcom County.

De Place, with Sightline, said he’s studied tar-sands spills in Washington and elsewhere and concluded that, while it’s good to have a response plan in place, “there essentially is no adequate spill response.”

“Managing an aging oil pipeline is a bit like driving the wrong way down a freeway,” he said. “You can take some safety precautions, but you’re kind of asking for trouble over the long-term.”

But Sandy Howard, a spokesperson for Washington’s Department of Ecology, said she’s confident in the new plan.

Ecology rejected the first draft of the plan, which the Canadian government — the pipeline’s new owner — submitted in September.

Howard said this newest iteration does more to protect Washington’s environment and waterways by identifying salmon and other at-risk species and by calling for responders to watch for orcas and herd them away from a spill.

Ecology accepted this plan on Wednesday.