An oil spill in a sensitive location at a certain point in time could have a devastating effects on at-risk species, according to testimony this week in Prince Rupert at hearings into the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
Under questioning from the provincial government, Northern Gateway witnesses Jeffrey Green said the viability of fish like eulachon could be harmed if a spill were to happen during spawning season.
"If a spill occurred at exactly the same time as eulachon were approaching the spawning area and there were the types of oil and the volume of oil and the oil exposure at the spawning site that that would have significant and very adverse effect on on that spawning population," Green told the National Energy Board's Joint Review Panel.
Green went on to say that it would be unlikely that all the eulachon would be in the stretch of river affected by the spill and given the sensitive nature of the species, clean up crews would make habitat protection and recovery a priority.
The hearings in Prince Rupert are part of a lengthy examination of the environmental assessment put forward by Enbridge to build the Northern Gateway pipeline from northern Alberta to Kitimat to export diluted bitumen to foreign markets.
Provincial government lawyer Elisabeth Graff spent more than two hours asking questions of the Kitimat River Valley witness panel, with topics ranging from which spill scenarios have been included in the evidence so far, the reversibility of environmental effects of a spill and the impact of spills on wildlife.
In a statement provided to the Citizen, the Ministry of the Environment said it was not satisfied with the answers it received.
"The ability by Enbridge to provide world-leading spill prevention and response still remains unclear from the answers we are receiving," the provincial ministry wrote.
Northern Gateway spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht said his company has put more information on the public record than any other pipeline proponent in Canada.
"We have gone further by enhanced marine safety measures and a marine response that far exceeds regulation," he said, adding the company will have more discussions with the province in an effort to address their concerns.
In addition to eulachon, Graff also asked about the impacts an oil spill could have on salmon. Once again the witnesses said it will come down to the time of year and the location in a river of a potential spill.
"If a spill occurred while adults were migrating into the river but before eggs were deposited in the sediments, then there could be acute effects on some of the adult fish but only fish in the main stem of the river," Dr. Malcolm Stephenson answered. "So if adult fish had already entered a tributary of the river that was not affected by the spill, then those fish would not be affected by the spill.
"Similarly, if a spill occurred after spawning had occurred but while eggs and developing embryos were in the gravels, the adults would by that time - if were talking salmon - the adults would by that time have died naturally. So the effect would be on those eggs and embryos in the gravels that were impacted by high enough concentrations of hydrocarbons to cause a developmental effect or mortality."
Graff wanted to know if there could be conditions where the results of a spill were not reversible.
"So I think youll agree with us, that Northern Gateway cant state that the effects of a spill would always be reversible in every incidence and on every species?" she asked.
"In the exceptional circumstance, given the types of conditions weve spoken to, a threatened population could be badly damaged and then the recovery of that population would be somewhat questionable," Green replied. "What I think we need to put around that is that these populations would be the focus of a spill response action if a spill occurred."
The province will not ask questions of the Aboriginal engagement and public consultation panel, which is expected to get underway the week of March 11 but will ask its final set of questions to the shipping and navigation witnesses when Northern Gateway seats its last panel either at the end of the month or in early April.
The provincial government also announced Thursday it has hired Alaska-based Nuka Research and Planning Group to produce a report on what needs to be done to create a world-class marine spill response capability in B.C.