B.C.’s hidden menace

Living in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, one receives regular reminders that this is a seismic zone. Residents are advised to keep a week’s supply of food and water and plan ahead, because the expected Big One will cause major damage.

The situation is recognized by the building code, and as a result public buildings like schools and hospitals are kept upgraded. It’s strange then, that amid the furor over the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain project, the decrepit state of the already existing pipeline has been ignored.

Reaching the West Coast port is of great importance for Alberta’s oil producers, and there’s a tendency to view the outlying districts mainly as obstacles between them and their markets. To natives of B.C. though, the Fraser River has significance akin to what the Nile means to Egypt. This valley’s health is of major concern.

Kinder Morgan’s advertising often refers to their pipeline’s sixty years without a serious mishap, as a sign of safety and good management. In reality, the province has gotten off lucky.

Back in 1953, when the existing pipeline was installed, geologists did not consider the area to be at risk for major earthquakes. Since the 1980s, it’s been known that the Category 9 events do come here. There’s no exact timetable, but the danger zone is now upon us.

The valley’s soil is mainly alluvium, river dirt, which makes the area incredibly fertile. In a major quake, this ground is expected to liquefy. The pipeline is not like a piece of garden hose; rather, long sections filled with heavy bitumen are held together by welds which were done over 60 years ago. And if parts of the line begin to lift up and then subside, the system will be under stress that it was never designed for.

Here in Chilliwack, it’s often pointed out that the pipeline runs over the cherished aquifer; from there it crosses the revered Vedder River. Clearly any spills would cause serious damage. However in a large earthquake, spreading bitumen would endanger farmlands, rivers and streams from Hope to Burnaby.

Part of the problem seems to be, the local governments don’t have much leverage with the owners of the pipeline. If Chilliwack had the power to protect their aquifer, one threat could have been lessened long ago.