While the National Energy Board has not issued its final decision about Enbridge's Line 9 Reversal Plan, the energy company seems to be acting like it's a done deal. So we had Michael Toledano bike along the Line 9 route to see exactly what could be...
Photos by the author.
Enbridge’s 38-year-old Line 9 oil pipeline runs from Montreal to Sarnia, crossing many waterways and communities along its 639-kilometre route. The company has applied to transport highly toxic diluted bitumen—or dilbit—from Alberta’s tar sands through the pipeline and to reverse its flow, a move which pipeline expert Richard Kuprewicz has said would increase the line’s risk of rupturing to “over 90 percent.”
I decided to check out the pipeline first hand to see where it passes through the city of Toronto and what kind of damage a spill could unleash. Enbridge has dubbed Toronto a “high consequence area,” meaning that if the pipeline ruptured within city limits, the company would respond within four hours. Starting at one of the city’s major waterways, and following a bike lane that runs along the pipeline route, I saw about 13 kilometres of Line 9—approximately 2% of its overall route.
Other communities have learned the hard way that a dilbit spill is a lot more dangerous and difficult to clean up than a conventional, liquid oil spill. The diluted bitumen mixture contains both light and heavy materials—diluents and bitumen—which separate in the event of a spill. The diluents—a toxic mixture that often includes hydrogen sulphide, benzene, toluene, xylene, n-hexane, natural gas, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—evaporate into the air, putting those nearby at risk of potentially lethal toxic exposure “without necessarily any warning odour being sensed.” These airborne toxins are also highly flammable, and increase “the risk that an oil spill will explode if it comes into contact with high heat, sparks, static electricity or lightning.”After the diluents evaporate, the tar sands bitumen remains behind. If the spill occurs into a body of water, the bitumen sinks and becomes almost impossible to recover.
With all that in mind, I began where Line 9 is buried directly beneath the Don River, which runs throughout Toronto’s east end and drains into Lake Ontario. A spill in this location, or into the Humber and Rouge Rivers within the GTA that Line 9 also crosses, has the potential to poison Lake Ontario, which is unfortunately Toronto’s main water supply, and to spread dilbit throughout the city’s central and southern regions.
Although Enbridge’s reversal proposal has not yet been approved by the National Energy Board, I was surprised to find that the Don River crossing is already a major Enbridge construction site. In an effort to downplay the scope of the Line 9 reversal, which Enbridge framed in their indefensible application as a few parking lot and pump station upgrades in which “no new line pipe would be installed,” the company applied separately to the NEB to repair a section of the line that was collapsing due to river-bank erosion. This repair is what’s now underway. When I visited the site, a piece of the old, decommissioned pipe had been excavated and was in plain sight. It was surrounded by signs that read: “Danger: Radiation.”
This repair is a clear sign of Enbridge’s hubris. The company has already said that they will decommission Line 9 if the reversal is not approved. And despite waves of resistance and widespread disapproval among people along the pipeline route, Enbridge is acting as though approval is certain, sinking thousands of dollars into pipeline repairs that are necessary for the reversal project to go forward.
I followed Enbridge’s warning signs along the buried pipe, finding that the route was also marked with anti-Line 9 graffiti. The first part of the route was overwhelmingly residential, lined with rows of houses and blocks of high-rise apartments. Four houses on one block, directly across the street from the pipeline, were up for sale. In this residential corridor there was also a public park, a community playground, and a middle school. In the event of a spill, these areas would certainly need to be evacuated.
After a short while I reached Yonge Street, where Line 9 is buried within a few feet of the entrance to one of Toronto’s busiest subway stations—a door in the subway station seems to allow the pipeline to be reached from within. At this same intersection, the line passed under a York Region Transit bus terminal and a massive commuter parking lot, each surrounded by high-rise office buildings.
Further west, the line runs within metres of playgrounds and parks, a baseball diamond, a retirement home, an Alzheimer’s patients’ home, a church, and another residential corridor. Further still, it passed by a community centre, a BMX park, a fire station, a stadium, more schools, and a number of cemeteries. At G Lord Ross Park—a flood control dam and reservoir that Line 9 crosses through—someone was fishing. I stopped for lunch, a block from the line, in a plaza full of small businesses and still surrounded by high-rise offices.
The next stretch was largely industrial, with the pipeline right-of-way surrounded on both sides by massive, rusted tanks that store gasoline, diesel, propane, ethanol, and jet fuel – many of which were part of a Suncor complex. Recalling a testimony given to the National Energy Board by Équiterre, which warned that “a Line 9B spill and explosion in the Montreal-East petrochemical complex has the potential to create a major explosion, by setting off a domino effect in an area with highly explosive facilities,” I was alarmed to see the pipe come within metres of similar facilities in Toronto.
Immediately after the petro-chemical corridor, which ended at Shell’s Keele terminal, was a fire station that Line 9 passes directly beneath. In a testimony given to the National Energy Board by concerned students from the nearby York University, the board members were told that the fire fighters at this station didn’t know that the pipeline existed until the students came to ask them about their emergency response plan.
Further west, near Jane and Finch, I passed by some more high rises and a shopping mall. The ride ended at Highway 400, a six-lane highway that Line 9 passes directly beneath.
This is but a glimpse of who and what Line 9 threatens. Nothing mentioned in this article is more than a block away from the pipeline, and I wasn’t able to explore Finch Avenue, the major road one block south of the pipe. But a quick tour of Finch, in Google maps, adds countless causes for concern: Finch is lined with homes, townhouses, low and high rise apartments, offices, churches, schools, community centres, small and large businesses, major industrial facilities, parks, daycares, a nature conservation area, retirement homes, government buildings, specialized medical facilities, two major hospitals, and construction sites for new retail and office complexes, condos, and a new subway extension. Line 9 puts this all at risk.