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The Town That Hates Pipelines — How Canada’s Energy Future Hit a Wall in Burnaby

In this city in British Columbia, even the fire department is fighting a massive pipeline project. In an environment where Keystone XL is dead, this may be the Alberta oilsands' last chance to move oil west.

by Hilary Beaumont
Feb 3 2016, 10:07pm

Photo via Hilary Beaumont

In Burnaby, 'Kinder' and 'Morgan' are two dirty words.

Burnaby's mayor, city councillors, and even the fire department have all come out against a project to expand Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline. More than 100 people have been handcuffed and arrested in opposition to the project, which will see nearly triple the amount of oil run through the town each day. Nearly 70 percent of residents count themselves against expanding the pipeline.

Many of those who live in the coastal city that borders Vancouver still remember when slick, black oil spewed from a Kinder Morgan line in 2007, coating trees, yards and spilling into an ocean inlet.

Eight years later, American company Kinder Morgan is eager to break ground on a massive expansion of its pipeline infrastructure in the area. Right now, it moves 300,000 barrels of oil a day through the area. If the company can convince the federal government to sign off on the project, it will move 890,000 barrels — more than the controversial Keystone XL proposal.

The pipeline would run from near Edmonton, Alberta through the Rocky Mountains to storage tanks in Burnaby on the BC coast.

Burnaby residents are gearing up for the next leg of the fight to make sure that doesn't happen.

VICE News visited the community in January to see what it looks like when a whole town hates a pipeline, a little over a year after police arrested more than 100 people — professors, students and members of First Nations — along the proposed pipeline route through Burnaby Mountain.

Under overcast skies on January 23, three generations of Burnaby residents carried signs denouncing the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline proposal while police watched from afar. They ranged from homeowners who had witnessed oil seep into their backyards from the burst pipeline in 2007 to activists with multiple arrests under their belts to members of First Nations that had steadfastly opposed the pipeline's progress through BC.

In neighbouring province, Alberta, Trans Mountain is touted by premier Rachel Notley as a smart way to get the province's petroleum from the oilsands to the coast. And amid tanking oil prices and rampant job losses in the sector, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been clear that Canada needs to get its resources to market one way or another.

"My daughter lives next door, my grandchildren live next door, and they are fearful for their lives because of the possibility of a disaster over at the tank farm. I think they will be moving before that new pipeline ever came in, if it is ever allowed to go."

But in British Columbia, and Burnaby in particular, Trans Mountain is deeply detested, with a 2014 public opinion poll finding 68 percent of the city's residents are against the pipeline.

Expanding the pipeline would increase tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet, which could up the risk of oil spills. And the pipeline will have the capacity to pump diluted bitumen, often referred to as dilbit, is a "heavy, sour oil" that's mixed with lighter hydrocarbons so it can flow through a pipeline, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

But protesters worry dilbit could be harder to clean up than regular crude if it hits seawater in the inlet. While crude is typically cleaned up by skimming the surface, dredging permits had to be issued in 2010 in Michigan to remove submerged oil and contaminated sediment from the Kalamazoo River after an Enbridge pipeline burst.

Spills aren't residents' only concern: the proposal would more than double the number of oil storage tanks, from 13 to 27, at the Burnaby tank farm.

On January 23, John Murray Clarke, a grandfather who has lived in Burnaby his whole life, carried a sign displaying an enormous blaze. "That's what a tank farm looks like when it's on fire," he told VICE News, matter of factly. "It's in Puerto Rico and it all started because of one faulty dial."

Clarke built his home at the base of Burnaby Mountain. His daughter and grandchildren live next door. He considers TransMountain a major risk, and said his family plans to move if the pipeline is approved.

"My wife and I, we built our house. I hand built it. It's something that can't be recreated. My daughter lives next door, my grandchildren live next door, and they are fearful for their lives because of the possibility of a disaster over at the tank farm. I think they will be moving before that new pipeline ever came in, if it is ever allowed to go."

"It's absolutely insane to be storing that kind of material on the side of a mountain," Clarke said of the tanks Kinder Morgan is proposing to store Alberta oil from the Trans Mountain expansion. "I know several people in our area who have sold their homes and are moving once they understand the dangers."

"I'm willing to die for my land. I'm willing to die for my people. And that's how far I'm ready to go."

The Burnaby Fire Department has said the proposed tank farm "would dramatically increase risk to public safety and environment."

"The configuration of the tank farm on a hillside on such a tight footprint means that emergency responders would likely be forced to allow the tank fire to burn out while adjacent tanks are protected," the fire department concluded, adding that firefighters would "be forced to significantly risk their personal safety."

A fire at the tank farm could result in risk to human life, and a worst-case scenario boil-over "would require an emergency activation of provincial scale," the fire department's report continued.

The grandfather remembered the 2007 oil disaster that saw a jet of crude spew sideways about 30 to 40 feet into the air, and seeping into the Burrard Inlet, home to birds, wildlife, and tanker traffic. More than 200,000 litres were recovered from the area in a subsequent cleanup.

The disaster didn't necessarily turn people against the Kinder Morgan expansion, he said, but it woke Burnaby up to the possibility that an oil spill could happen again. He called the spill "a loss of innocence."

Dan Wallace, a member of a BC First Nation, was at the protest outside the Delta Burnaby hotel, but he wasn't on the street like the others. Instead he was inside the hotel, where the Trans Mountain hearings were happening, cheering on protesters who staged a sit-in.

On January 18, the day before the hearings began, Wallace was one of seven protesters who were arrested after they boarded a Kinder Morgan contractor's barge and claimed to shut it down. Wallace kayaked up to the barge and hopped aboard, he told VICE News. It was one of about 20 times he'd been arrested for similar stunts, he estimated, including locking himself to a fence at Chevron's Burnaby refinery to protest the company's Pacific Trail Pipeline.

The company said work wasn't happening that day on the barge, which was performing test drilling.

"Right now all the kids in British Columbia, they're starting to move out, including my own daughter."

Wallace hopes his stunts will stop pipeline construction, which he sees as contributing to climate change.He also criticized the National Energy Board (NEB), the federal agency that approves pipelines, and the Canadian government for putting people in a situation where they need to act. If they had properly consulted with First Nations, he said, "we wouldn't be in this situation," he argued.

He believes rallies aren't enough to stop new pipelines from snaking through BC. Instead, boarding barges and standing up to cops "sends a message to them that we mean business."

"People are beginning to wake up and realize the same thing, which is that we can't just sign a petition, go to a rally or march, we really have to get in the way of industry because industry is just going to keep moving forward until we literally stop them," he said.

"I'm willing to die for my land. I'm willing to die for my people. And that's how far I'm ready to go."

Wallace is at the extreme end of pipeline opposition in Burnaby. And though it may be hard to find people to speak in favour of the Kinder Morgan proposal, not everyone hates the Trans Mountain pipeline.

A Burnaby cab driver, who lives in the suburbs, said he thought the pipeline would bring desperately-needed jobs to BC.

"It's good for the economy," he said. "Right now all the kids in British Columbia, they're starting to move out, including my own daughter."

His daughter moved to Saskatchewan to study environmental engineering because it was so hard to find a job in BC, he said. He suspects the pipeline would help keep those jobs in BC.

"We'd be better than we are right now."

After the 2007 spill, Kinder Morgan and the company responsible for puncturing the pipeline pleaded guilty to causing environmental pollution. Each paid a $1,000 fine and had to pay nearly $150,000 to an environmental trust fund.

Clarke said another accident could be "devastating."

"You have to understand the nature of people on the west coast here," he explained. "We really cherish our environment. We cherish our parks, we cherish the ocean, the beaches, the mountains, and a lot of people are very involved in the outdoors."

To him and those who oppose it, the pipeline threatens all of that, so they can't let it go forward.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont

All photos via Hilary Beaumont