Like many northern British Columbians, Kelly Marsh loves the outdoors.
The Kitimat resident skis the mountains, fishes the streams and paddles the rivers of the region, so it's no surprise the prospect of a heavy oil pipeline going in the area piqued his interest. Northern Gateway is currently seeking approval to build a pipeline from Alberta's oilsands to Kitimat.
"Everything I do there I love and I'd hate to see what we have there, this gem, the Kitimat Valley ruined by any type of bitumen spill," he said Thursday after getting his chance to ask questions at National Energy Board (NEB) hearings in Prince George.
After learning of the project, Marsh, a millwright who works for the City of Kitimat, figured it was important to educate himself on the pipeline, so he started to attend meetings hosted by both pipeline proponent Enbridge and by local environmental groups. His interest piqued, he started going over the formal application the company had filed with the National Energy Board and found himself drawn to the areas around spill probabilities.
"I just kept running into numbers that really didn't make any sense to me," Marsh said. "One chance of a spill within 1,800 years? Or a chance of a spill in 254 years? I just couldn't wrap my mind around what these meant."
With the value of preserving the Kitimat Valley for his three-year-old granddaughter Isla on his mind, Marsh decided to dig in even deeper. With the help of a friend and local Kitimat math teacher Brian Hashamoto, he started extracting figures from Northern Gateway regulatory filings and began to put them in a way anyone could understand.
"I put some research together that would rationalize in my own head the percentage of a spill over the 50-year life of the project," Marsh said.
What he found was there's an 82.8 per cent chance of either a medium or a large spill over the next 50 years. The risk is highest in the interior plateau of British Columbia, where Marsh judges it to be 45.4 per cent. A medium size spill would equate to about one million litres of oil leaking out of the pipe, a large spill could be as much as twice that size.
Marsh first presented his information during community hearings in June, but figured he should get his math checked out by an expert. Thompson Rivers University assistant professor Shane Rollans took a second look and eventually produced a report which was submitted by Douglas Channel Watch as evidence during the NEB Joint Review Panel hearings.
Marsh spent much of his cross-examination Thursday morning trading numbers and their meaning with Northern Gateway experts.
Enbridge vice-president of pipeline integrity Walter Kresic cautioned that the figures Marsh took from the filings must be used for their intended purpose. Kresic said the figures Marsh presented were mathematically correct, but Northern Gateway uses them to find out how best to mitigate the chance of a spill, not predict how often spills will happen.
"I agree the numbers show a number, but I don't agree a spill will happen in that time frame," Kresic said.
Northern Gateway contends there's an 18.8 per cent chance of a full bore rupture during the expected life of the pipeline and a 70.9 per cent chance of a spill of any sort, however that latter figure includes the potential for small spills which never leave company property.
Marsh said he wasn't surprised the witnesses challenged the appropriateness of his data.
"I don't think anybody would be proud of an 82 per cent chance of a medium or large spill on their pipeline over a 50-year period," Marsh said. "That's not the type data that you're going to boast about."
Northern Gateway president John Carruthers said in the big picture of Enbridge's pipeline network, spilled oil represents a tiny fraction of what the company transports each year.
"In terms of spill probability, it's very small in terms of the amount of volume that's moved and the distances that are moved," he said in an interview after Marsh finished asking his questions.
Marsh, who describes himself as a "regular guy", said he's enjoyed the experience of crunching the numbers and getting the chance to present his findings.
Since there's no firm schedule to the hearings, Marsh took four days of holidays to be in Prince George on the right days so he could ask his questions.
"I'm not going to lie [the report] has influenced other people and when you're in a position to do that, it's very rewarding," he said, adding he couldn't have done all the work without the support of his family.
Later Thursday, Murray Minchin of Douglas Channel Watch questioned Northern Gateway on spill response plans around the Kitimat River. He spoke about concerns around the terrain of the Coastal mountains as well as challenges presented by floods and winter conditions. He also questioned the effect a spill could have on salmon spawning groups.
Lawyers for the ForestEthics Advocacy, Living Oceans Society and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation - known collectively as the environmental coalition - began their questioning late in the session. They started with northern Alberta and the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline's possible interaction with other pipelines.
The cross-examination of Northern Gateway continues on Friday with the coalition up first, but the session will wrap up at 1 p.m. to allow for preparations for a wedding reception at the Columbus Centre on Friday night.
The hearings will then take a one-week break before reconvening at the Ramada for two more weeks starting Oct. 29.