Long term impacts of oil spills

If a spill were to occur, the thick, heavy, toxic bitumen crude oil would sink and smother the marine substrate. Benzenes and other toxins would poison the foundations of the food chain. The toxic polycyclic-aromatic-hydrocarbons (“PAHs”) would dissolve in the water and poison all life forms in the intertidal, marine substrate and in open water.
Persistence after a spill from the Gulf of Mexico and the Amoco Cadiz spill in France show that oil remains in the substrate even after 30 years. Some researchers have estimated that crude oil may persist in an ecosystem for up to a century, with continued negative impacts on flora and fauna.

Evidence from the Exxon Valdez disaster, which spilled 10.8 million US gallons (257,000 barrels; 41,000 m3) of crude oil, showed that only two of the 28 species injured (river otter and bald eagle) were fully recovered after 10 years.  Both the long-term and short-term effects of the oil spill have been studied. Immediate effects included the deaths of 100,000 to as many as 250,000 seabirds, at least 2,800 sea otters, approximately 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, and 22 orcas, and an unknown number of salmon and herring.  In 2003, fourteen years after the spill, researchers found that at only a few parts per billion, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons caused a long-term increase in mortality rates. They reported that “species as diverse as sea otters, harlequin ducks and killer whales suffered large, long-term losses and that oiled mussel beds and other tidal shoreline habitats will take an estimated 30 years to recover.” As of 2010 there were an estimated 23,000 US gallons (87 m3) of Valdez crude oil still in Alaska’s sand and soil, breaking down at a rate estimated at less than 4% per year.

Fish, birds, marine mammals, reptiles, amphibians, shellfish, and plants are die from suffocation and poison. Oil is known to cause cancer, liver decay, tumors, ulcers, respiratory failure, narcosis, and other diseases in animals, including humans. Oil kills and stunts wetland grasses and other plants, causing root structures to decay and soil to erode. Local food chains are significantly impacted after the loss of phytoplankton, shellfish, fish, and birds. At least 20% of our oxygen comes from phytoplankton in the Salish Sea (formerly called the Georgia Straight). The loss of plants and eroded soil destroy wetland nurseries for birds, fish, and other animals.

Oil tanker accidents are an inevitable outcome of tanker traffic worldwide. The continued expansion of oil tanker traffic in Burrard Inlet, British Columbia poses the extreme risk of an accidental spill, releasing millions of gallons of crude oil into the environment and devastating marine life, natural habitats, shorelines, beaches, and fisheries. The present super tankers carry eight times as much as the Exxon Valdez.  The Trans Mountain expansion would move 890,000 barrels per day through Jasper National Park, across the Vedder Fan aquifer, and could see a super tanker loaded every day at the Burrard Inlet marine terminal on the Pacific Ocean. Tanker passing through the First and Second Narrows passages presents more risks with increased traffic.

Trans Mountain pipeline

The Canadian Federal Government has promised a “world class?” $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan when the Trans Mountain construction project starts.   However,  the 1.5 billion covers the three Canadian oceans and is spread over five years covering some initates not related to increased tanker traffic. Also, the government’s spill-response system still looks very much like conventional spill-response systems that have been in place in British Columbia and around the world since the 1970s, systems that include booms and skimmers, and consider 10 to 15 per cent oil recovery a success.

The plan is to use the oil dispersant, Corexit 9500, is to break up oil slicks on the water’s surface by forming oil droplets.  Chemical dispersion process does not reduce the amount of oil entering the marine environment. The idea is to turn the oil into small droplets that are more easily degraded by naturally occurring microbes. But unfortunately, this oil dispersant  is toxic to these microbes and marine life.

Environment Canada found that in breaking-wave conditions, dispersants were able to disperse less than half of the dilbit released into the water. In non-breaking waves, dilbit was not affected at all by dispersant application. The report concluded that the physical properties of dilbit “limit the effectiveness of currently available spill-treating agents.”


Transport of oil on land has its risks, even in pipelines. Since the 1960s, the longest period of time the Trans Mountain Pipeline has gone without a spill is approximately four years. One spill leaked 10,000 barrels of crude. Since tank farms, world wide, have large risk of a catastrophic fire, governments have limited tank farms near highly populated urban areas. The Trans Mountain expansion also involves enlarging the tank farm right underneath Simon Fraser University. If a fire occurred, there is no safe escape route for the university. The only road access to and from the university is right above the tank farm. Please see the video: Dangers of Kinder Morgan tank farm in Burnaby. 

Specific Concerns related to diluted bitumen

Unlike crude oil, diluted bitumen, often referred to as dilbit, sinks in salt water when battered by waves and mixed with sediment. Bitumen, when diluted with condensed gas and/or volatile solvents such as naphtha, separates when released into the marine environment. The volatile gases – toluene and the carcinogen benzene– are released into the air causing headaches, nausea, dizziness, coughing, and fatigue among the local population.  One may fairly assume that all other animals that breathe the air would experience similar symptoms. After the Michigan oil spill, the toxic fumes remained for weeks, and could be smelled up to 50 kilometres away. Two years after the spill, up to 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River still remained closed to fishing, swimming, or even wading in. Seven years later cleanup continues.  After an oil spill, the decline of affected marine ecosystem would begin with the loss of plankton, algae, biofilm, sea plants, and other primary biomass food sources for all other animals.
 Evidence from the Public Heath Association of BC suggests that pipeline spill would expose millions of people to toxic chemicals (including known carcinogens) associated with cancer, as well as cardiovascular and respiratory problems. The toxic fumes from a dilbit spill in Burrard Inlet or the Salish Sea (Georgia Strait) would require an evacuation of areas in BC’s Lower Mainland and surrounding islands. Clean-up crews would have to battle these fumes, as well as bitumen sinking below their skimmers. The density of bitumen prior to dilution will determine how fast the substance will sink in fresh or salty water. As the heavy bitumen sinks and moves with wind and tides, it covers the marine bottom-life, mixes with the sediments, impacts shellfish, and kills ocean plants, fish, and marine mammals. 

The above text was adapted from the Wilderness Committee website.


A Calgary engineer thinks an invention he stumbled upon in the laboratory could transform the way Alberta gets its heavy oil to market. Marble sized balls can be easy made to transport by rail car, truck or ship rather than pipeline. These balls could also be injected with air to make them float. This would avoid environmental risks of dilbit.


Given the scale of this risk of ecological and economic destruction  which could happen on the southern BC’s coast – the provincial, federal and municipal governments should take the following steps immediately:

  • Ban the export of diluted bitumen (dilbit) from Burrard Inlet.
  • Stop the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline project.
  • Convene a meeting of all stakeholders within the Salish Sea, focused on habitat protection and restoration.
  • Protect the environment, it is a matter of survival.

Climate change and tar sand extraction:

On Earth Day, Canada signed on to the Paris climate agreement, committing our country to 1.5-2C of global warming. Climate and energy campaigner Larissa Stendie warns that this gesture is nothing more than symbolic. The federal government must stop pursuing pipelines and fracked gas if it wants to be the climate leader it purports to be.

“Canada’s symbolic signing of the Paris climate agreements Friday was a hopeful and necessary step. Yet symbolism and rhetoric need to be followed by urgent action here at home if we are serious about avoiding a catastrophic four to six degrees Celsius of warming.”

Pipelines and fracked gas are not the pathway to Paris solutions; they are the path to increased wildfires, water shortages and other increasingly unmanageable climate impacts.”

A greenhouse gas is any gaseous compound in the atmosphere that is capable of absorbing infrared radiation, thereby trapping and holding heat in the atmosphere. By increasing the heat in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases are responsible for the greenhouse effect, which ultimately leads to global warming. The primary greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere are water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone.

Today’s atmosphere contains 42 per cent more carbon dioxide than it did at the start of the industrial era. Levels of methane and carbon dioxide are the highest they have been in nearly half a million years.  Methane is roughly 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas.

The extraction of the tar sands creates large amounts of methane to be released into the atmosphere.

We need to shift our economy from a dependence on fossil fuels to support alternate energy projects. At present our Federal Government is subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. It has forked over 4.5 billion for an old leaky pipeline and 3.3 billion is spent yearly on fossil-fuel subsidies.