Risk of tankers on Fraser River ‘acceptable’: port study

Critic fears jet fuel plan may open new route for oil tankers

One of the types of vessels expected to carry jet fuel Vancouver Airport via a terminal on the Fraser River

One of the types of vessels expected to carry jet fuel Vancouver Airport via a terminal on the Fraser River

A study for Port Metro Vancouver concludes it’s feasible to send tankers into the lower Fraser River to supply jet fuel to Vancouver International Airport and the risks are “broadly acceptable.”

It found the likelihood of a spill damaging the environment is “improbable” but recommends a series of safeguards to further reduce the risks if such a project advances.

The Fraser River Tanker Traffic Study, prepared by consultants Det Norske Veritas, was commissioned by the port in response to a proposal to bring jet fuel by tankers to a terminal on the river at No. 7 road and then send it by underground pipeline through Richmond to the airport.

The study considered scenarios such as ships colliding, a tanker running aground due to human error or adrift due to mechanical failure, a fire or explosion and the risk of accidents while a tanker is moored at a riverside terminal.

It calls for tugs to escort tankers with hazardous cargo and for enhanced emergency response capabilities on the river.

Other recommendations include tighter regulation of vessel traffic on the lower Fraser and various navigation aids so pilots aboard the vessels would know precisely how much water is between the keel and the river bed.

It also argues any terminal on the river should be shielded from other shipping traffic with some sort of fender-like structure to reduce the risk of another ship hitting a moored tanker.

“It shows there are some mitigations that need to be put in place to ensure safety,” said Port Metro Vancouver harbour master Yoss Leclerc.

The study was not limited to the river entrance, but considered the potential for tanker traffic as far upstream as the Pattullo Bridge.

Leclerc said the scope was based on the physical limit of how far deep sea tankers can travel, adding there are no specific proposals he’s aware of further upriver toward New Westminster or Surrey.

But Richmond Coun. Harold Steves said he thinks the study has set the stage for more tanker proposals.

“Once you’ve established the right of tankers to come up the river, who knows where they’ll go,” he said. “We could end up with a major tanker port.”

Steves said he suspects the Fraser River could emerge as a backup terminal for Kinder Morgan, if its plan to twin its Trans Mountain oil pipeline and send many more crude oil tankers out through Burrard Inlet runs into too much opposition in Vancouver.

“Once they can use tankers to carry jet fuel on the river, what’s to stop them from carrying crude?”

The only specific proposal so far for liquid shipments on the Fraser is the one from the Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corp., although it has not yet made a formal application.

Critics say it would pose unacceptable risks to the Fraser estuary’s important habitat for salmon, birds and other marine life.

Steves said he’s not surprised the port-funded study essentially gives a green light to river tankers, despite heavy opposition in Richmond.

“The whole question of tankers coming up the river to provide jet fuel for the airport has been broken down into little isolated components,” Steves said, adding separate hearings are looking into the planned pipeline.

“We never get the overall picture. So we’re being piecemealed to death on a project that has problems throughout its scope.”

The tanker study found two out of 62 accidents on the south arm of the Fraser in the past five years involved deep water vessels and none have been serious leading to significant pollution or fatalities.

It also concluded the Fraser River bottom is mainly soft sand and would not likely damage a tanker’s hull if there were contact. All tankers transiting the river would have to have double hulls, it added, and be under the control of local pilots.

See also the study’s full report and its summary.