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Crude oil spill on the St. Lawrence would cost billions, report reveals

ReportA new report by the Council of Canadians and Équiterre says that an oil spill in Lac Saint-Pierre on the St. Lawrence River would cost billions to clean up – far more than the liability limit in Canada.

The report modeled the costs and damages from a spill of less than 10 per cent of the cargo of an Afromax class supertanker, a size of ship that recently received federal approval to ply the waters of the St. Lawrence River. According to the model, a spill of 10 million litres would cost $2.14 billion. The federal limit to liability for oil spills is $1.4 billion, leaving taxpayers on the hook for the difference.

“The environmental consequences on both the land and the water associated with tanker accidents are usually catastrophic for the directly affected ecosystems. Cleanup and remediation efforts are always very expensive and often ineffective,” writes Émilien Pelletier, Professor Emeritus and Canada Research Chair in Molecular Exotoxicology in Coastal Areas at the Université du Québec à Rimouski, in a preface to the report.

The environmental impact would be devastating to Lac Saint-Pierre, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve recognized as a wetland of international importance. Lac Saint-Pierre is a drinking water source and home to 27 species of rare plants, 79 species of fish, and 288 species of waterfowl.

“Lac Saint-Pierre is a treasure and a wonder in the area. One oil spill could be the death of it all for future generations,” says Steven Guilbeault of Équiterre. “Given the high environmental price of a spill, diluted bitumen shipments should not be permitted on the St. Lawrence River.”

Shipments of diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands are expected to increase as oil giant Suncor and pipeline company TransCanada ramp up exports from ports on the St. Lawrence River. Bitumen from the tar sands is extremely difficult to contain and clean up when spilled on water as it tends to sink to the bottom.

The study also reports that in the event of an oil spill, emergency response would be limited by ice conditions and inadequate capacity of the small private company responsible for oil spill cleanup on the St. Lawrence. Under normal conditions, a spill could travel the length of Lac Saint-Pierre in eight hours – far quicker than a response can be mounted.

“We should be reducing the amount of oil shipped on the St. Lawrence, not increasing it,” says Mark Calzavara of the Council of Canadians. “Doubling the number of supertankers and doubling their size means that a disastrous oil spill is just a matter of time.”

The report recommends reducing the allowable ship size and number of exports, increasing emergency response capacity, removing the liability limit, and making the exporting company jointly responsible for damages.

The report is available here.

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Sujata Dey, Council of Canadians: (613) 796-7724
Geneviève Aude Puskas, Équiterre: (514) 792-5222