Harper's tar sands tankers threaten UNESCO biosphere on the St. Lawrence River

Photo: Lac Saint-Pierre Biosphere Reserve.
Photo: Lac Saint-Pierre Biosphere Reserve.

A supertanker scheduled to transport as much as 700,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen on the St. Lawrence River has been stopped by authorities due to a lack of emergency fire equipment on board the ship. The Genmar Daphne was on its way to a port at Sorel-Tracy (near Montreal) but is now anchored about 400 kilometres away at the mouth of the St. Lawrence in Les Escoumins.

CBC reports, "The Genmar Daphne is one of 20 to 30 supertankers expected to travel the St. Lawrence River to pick up oilsands bitumen transported to the area by train." Just three weeks ago, the Minerva Gloria supertanker departed Sorel-Tracy with 700,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen on board destined for a refinery in Sardinia, Italy.

These shipments are possible because of the Harper government. Previously, ships wider than 32 meters were not allowed in that part of the St. Lawrence River. But in December 2013 the Harper government increased the allowable size of ships. The Minerva Gloria is 44 metres wide, the Genmar Daphne is 42 metres wide. By way of comparison, 42 metres is about the height of a 13-floor building.

The risks posed by these shipments are numerous.

Le Devoir reports (in French), "The ships are to travel a particularly risky part of the St. Lawrence. Lac Saint-Pierre, in particular, is shallow and the inland portion is very narrow." Lac Saint-Pierre is a World Biosphere Reserve recognized by UNESCO [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization]. The Lac Saint-Pierre Biosphere Reserve, established in 2000, is located on the Saint Lawrence River, east of Montreal, between Sorel-Tracy and Trois-Rivières.

Additionally, Radio-Canada reported (in French) last week that, "Sorel-Tracy mayor Serge Peloquin wrote to the federal and provincial governments that city emergency services neither have the training, technical capacity nor financial resources to respond to a crude oil spill in the river." La Presse adds (in French), "After canvassing a dozen municipalities along the river, Le Soleil revealed two weeks ago that none of them was almost ready in case of such an environmental disaster."

And in late-September, Radio-Canada reported (in French) that, "Only 5-20 per cent of an oil spill in the river could be recovered. ...It would be impossible to use dispersants in a clean-up because the river is a source of drinking water. And it wouldn't be possible to burn the oil spill because of the proximity of the river banks. Mechanical recovery techniques would have to be used. This is the conclusion of a report published in 2013 by a committee of experts mandated by Transport Canada."

That article adds, "The federal government requires oil companies to have the ability to deal with a spill of 10,000 tonnes of oil within 72 hours." But the Minerva Gloria carried fifteen times that amount - 150,000 tonnes of bitumen - and the Genmar Daphne would carry a similar amount.

In her March 2014 report Liquid Pipeline: Extreme energy’s threat to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow wrote, "To protect the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River we must ban all transport of tar sands bitumen on, under and near the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River."

The river provides 43 per cent of the population of Quebec with its drinking water.

Further reading
Suncor sneaks tar sands shipments past Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River communities (October 9 blog by Emma Lui)
Council opposes tar sands shipment on the St. Lawrence River next week (September 23 blog)