In all her years, a library fine is the closest thing Della Glendenning has ever had to a run-in with the law. Not anymore.
"I'm here for my children, and grandchildren, and perhaps great grandchildren," the 74-year-old proclaims to the cheers of fellow protesters, as she's led away by police officers. "I want them to see the beauty of our land, and to protect the Salish Sea."
The sea that Glendenning speaks of is a network of coastal waterways — including the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound, and the Juan de Fuca Strait— largely sheltered from the wrath of the Pacific Ocean by protective landmasses. Its connecting channels weave their way in and around the ecologically sensitive coastline that connects British Columbia and Washington State, filtering into Vancouver and Seattle, among other major port cities.
But drive 30 minutes east of Vancouver, and, with the same uncompromising force in which water surges against land, environmentalists and Big Oil collide on a daily basis. Glendenning is among more than 100 protesters who have been arrested on Burnaby Mountain since last Thursday, when growing protests against destructive surveying work by energy giant Kinder Morgan reached a climax.
The company's workers are drilling a borehole nearly 600 feet into the earth, extracting core samples to determine the seismic feasibility of a $5.4 billion dollar expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. If completed, the amount of oil the pipeline would transport from the Alberta tar sands to export terminals along the coast would nearly triple from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000. Tanker traffic from the terminals would increase from five a month to thirty-four.
The road winding up Burnaby Mountain has been closed to traffic — but that hasn't stopped hundreds of defiant demonstrators from marching to the top. It's a showdown months in the making — decades even, if you reach far enough back in time to the birth of the pipeline in 1953. It was celebrated then; a lot can change in 60 years.
In September, Kinder Morgan cut down 13 trees in Burnaby Mountain's fragile conservation area — a move the company maintains was a necessary step in determining whether the mountain is stable enough for an underground pipeline. Environmentalists responded by organizing a blockade to prevent workers from entering the job site. But Kinder Morgan fired back, winning a court injunction on November 14th that prevented protesters from blockading the area.
The battle outside of Vancouver is not dissimilar to an equally fierce struggle south of the border.
"A lot of Americans are concerned about the Keystone XL pipeline," Stephen Collis, a linguistics professor at nearby Simon Fraser University, told VICE News. "This project is almost the same size. It's almost a million barrels a day. This is huge. It's one of those projects that scientists look at and say, 'if you build this, we're done.'"
Critics of the proposed expansion contend it's a virtual certainty that the increased tanker traffic will damage — and, potentially ruin — sensitive ecosystems unique to the Pacific Northwest. In the past decade, the existing pipeline has been the source of several environmental accidents. In 2007, a construction crew punctured part of the pipeline with an excavator, resulting in a geyser that released 1500 barrels of oil. Nearly 300 residents adjacent to the pipeline were evacuated and some of the oil made its way into a nearby inlet, effecting fragile marine life and lingering, say some residents, for years after.
"I've always loved crab fishing," says Todd Fraser, a demonstrator who lives near the spill site. "For two years after the spill, I kept pulling out crabs with black legs that were covered in oil. And their shells weren't the regular pink color — they were brown. Eventually, I just stopped crab fishing altogether."
Tamo Campos, a 24-year-old alternative energy advocate and amateur filmmaker, is the grandson of globally recognized environmentalist David Suzuki. He was also one of the first protesters to be detained — albeit, not willingly.
"I had no intention of being arrested," Campos maintains, insisting he has video evidence to prove it. "But I was being pulled over the front line by the police officers."
Arguably one of the most polarizing and powerful figures in the battle against climate change, Suzuki admonished the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RMCP) for abuse of power in a fiery public speech, denouncing the treatment of those opposing the pipeline expansion.
"You are here to enforce the law," Suzuki reprimanded the officers, to the applause of protesters. "That does not mean that you are above the law."
Within hours of Suzuki's speech, two 11-year-old girls protesting under parental supervision were led away by the RMCP after crossing the line demarcating the area covered by the injunction. Two days later, 84-year-old Barbara Grant earned the distinction of the first octogenarian at the site to be arrested.
Environmentalist David Suzuki describes his experience in a Japanese-Canadian internment camp during World War II and condemns the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for their treatment of protesters. (Video by Vancouver Observer)
"I want to make a statement," the great-grandmother declared. "I'm going to go out on a limb at this point in my life." Grant, a retired librarian and former professional pianist, says she felt compelled to support her younger counterparts, and to take a stand for her homeland.
"I love this place," she said, moments before crossing the police line. "And I can't tolerate the idea of even a single oil spill, because nobody can clean up a substantial spill."
But Kinder Morgan officials insist they're concerned about the environment, too.
"Some of the coverage hasn't been particularly well-balanced," said media relations officer Lisa Clement, in response to the mounting criticism being leveled against Kinder Morgan. Clement told VICE News that engineers say the area is seismically stable and suitable for the pipeline expansion.
The company says it expects to complete its surveying work on the mountain in a matter of days — the results of which will then be considered by the National Energy Board of Canada, the energy industry's federal regulator.
The board will also gather comments from members of Canada's indigenous communities, who oppose the pipeline because of the risk of an uncontrollable spill.
"It's shitty that we lost the crabs," Fraser told VICE News, shaking his head. "But at least we've got the salmon. If we lost them, I'd be devastated."
Follow Sarah MacDonald on Twitter: @MacDonald_Sarah
Image via Flickr