National Energy Board hearings into the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline hit close to home Monday.
Brenda Gouglas and Kandace Kerr of the Fort St. James Sustainability Group spent the morning Joint Review Panel (JRP) session asking questions about exactly what would happen if the pipeline were to leak near their community.
"The environment is prime for us," Gouglas said in an interview after three-and-a-half hours of questioning. "We work, we play, we live on the water, we draw our water for our crops from there. The environment piece is huge for us."
As the plan currently stands, Fort St. James is situated just to the north of the pipeline route and the pumping station proposed for the community is to be located less than 500 metres from the nearest residence.
The pair zeroed in on areas that would be important to their community in the event something went awry. For instance, they wanted to know if Northern Gateway would reimburse local emergency responders if their assets were deployed during the clean up of a spill.
Kevin Underhill, the director of environment, lands and right-of-way for Enbridge said it will be looked at on a case-by-case basis and depend on if the emergency responders were going about their regular duties or called upon to do something else.
Kerr, who lives within a kilometre of the route of the pipeline which would connect Alberta's oilsands with Kitimat, wanted to know exactly what the risk would be if there was a disaster like a fire at the pumping station.
Frank Burcha, an engineer commissioned by Northern Gateway to do a risk analysis, said the chance of a fatality is less than one in a million. Northern Gateway engineering manager Ray Doering added that the biggest challenge pumping stations present to the general public is the noise they generate - and the nearly half a kilometre buffer is enough of a barrier.
Both women asked questions about the potential impacts to Stuart River, Stuart Lake and Pitka Creek in the event of leak. The pair cited spills on Enbridge-operated pipelines near Marshall, Mich., in 2010 and in the Northwest Territories in 2011 when asking for examples for what could happen in northern B.C.
Gouglas wanted to know what the response time would be like for spills in the Fort St. James area and if it would change by season or time of day.
"The focus would be on an immediate response," Underhill said. "It would be a tiered response, we'd have to build up the response depending on the complexity [of the spill]."
He said public safety would be the company's first concern, followed by the environment and then protection of Northern Gateway assets.
Gouglas also wanted to know how Northern Gateway would access the pipeline via forest service roads in the winter, if those roads weren't being plowed for forestry needs.
Consultant Jeffrey Green replied that the company would evaluate the situation annually, but that they could use snowcats or other similar vehicles to travel on unplowed roads.
Gouglas, a former municipal councillor, said countless hours of preparation and research went into the planning of her group's cross-examination.
"It's been more intensive in the last couple of years," she said. "Every day, every week, we're there reading and researching. It's been a long time and there's even more work to do."
Gouglas and Kerr had some supporters in what was a full public gallery during the morning session. Gouglas said even more Fort St. James residents were planning to make the trip, but the snow prevented some from showing up.
"People in the community had lots of questions and that was our purpose here today, was to ask those questions of the panel and to maybe get some clarifications on things," Gouglas said. "I think we accomplished that, just getting some answers."
The pair plan on asking questions of the third Northern Gateway witness panel and Kerr will be making the trip to Prince Rupert to ask questions when the scene shifts to the coast.
"We're going to be there as long as it takes," she said.
JRP chairwoman Sheila Leggett announced prior to the opening of Monday's session that the panel would be back in Prince George from Nov. 22 to 29 to finish its hearings. She also added two evening sessions to the agenda, on Nov. 9 and Nov. 29.
The change of schedule means the hearings in Prince Rupert won't begin until December. The JRP will also need to add hearings dates for the coastal community, likely to occur in early 2013.