Barbara Stowe at Enbridge hearings: Supertankers on our coastline are untenable
On the afternoon of January 17, Barbara Stowe delivered an oral statement to the Joint Review Panel for the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Project. Stowe is the daughter of Greenpeace founders Irving and Dorothy Stowe and a friend of Greenpeace.
When I was thinking about what I wanted to say here, the words of poet John Keats came to me: " 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'—that is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know". And it struck me that the essence of what we’re doing here is searching for the truth, and that even though it may be profoundly painful, there is beauty in it.
I didn't want to speak at these hearings, but Uncle Bill [Bill Darnell, a Greenpeace founder] talked me into it. He's not my biological uncle, but he's one of the people who was in our home so often when I was a teenager that I consider him the equivalent of an uncle. There were always meetings going on in our living room, and when I was a teenager I used to see people like Bill when I came home from ballet classes at night. I was not and am not an activist like my parents. I didn’t understand why my father cried listening to Songs of the Humpback Whale when he first put on the record.
As the daughter of a lawyer, before I get involved with any issue I look at the facts and come up with every rational argument against the cause, and that way I often don’t have to participate.
But this time I can’t find one. And that’s because the first time I heard about the stopping speed of supertankers, it left such an indelible impression on me that I have never been able to shake it. It was the fall of 1973 and I was 17 years old, and Bill and my parents and some friends created a protest against a plan to sail supertankers along our coastline. On my T-shirt here is a photo of me walking in that protest, along with my teachers and classmates. We walked seven miles to the Peace Arch border crossing at Blaine to show how far a supertanker would travel before it could come to a stop in the case of an emergency.
That was 40 years ago. Unfortunately, as Gene Logan pictured for you so eloquently earlier this afternoon, supertankers still can't come to a stop in an emergency in anything resembling a timely fashion.
I don't need to tell you what kind of hazard might occur to warrant an emergency stop. You've heard from mariners intimate with our waters about the dangers of the route, about weather conditions, storms, collision hazards, and human error, and we’ve already seen human error, because if Enbridge can't find 1,000 sq km of islands, how can we trust them with our precious coastline?
So it was clear to me then, as it is now, that supertankers on our coastline are untenable. Enbridge has said it will ensure their tankers are travelling at safe speeds, but how can there be a safe speed when tankers continue plowing forward long after their engines have been switched off, because of the enormous momentum they build up as they sail? It reminds me of the Fukushima tragedy, of reactors that should never have been running in the first place and that couldn’t be switched off when the tsunami hit. Not being able to stop when we need to is a metaphor for a larger dynamic at play here, and I ask you to ask yourself the question I ask myself, which is, who is unable to stop, and why? Is it the speakers at these hearings, the Lee Brains of B.C. [Brain is an oil executive's son who gave testimony on January 18 and received a standing ovation]? Is it First Nations, who have said no to this project? Is it our provincial government, which has taken the electoral temperature and said something that sounds like no? Please, let’s be courageous and face the truth. Because if a non-industry, ordinary human being like me can grasp that sailing supertankers down Douglas Channel and through Hecate Strait is a disaster in the making, then something is very wrong here.
And now I come to the part about beauty, which is where I prefer to dwell, and which best illustrates my point, and to do that I want to tell you of an experience I had two and a half years ago. My mother had recently died and to try to ease my grief, friends took me up the coast of Vancouver Island, right up to the North eastern tip to Orcalab, where Paul Spong has been studying orcas for 40 years. He has hydrophones hung in the waters around Vancouver Island, and there are speakers all over the property, and when the whales come into range, you can hear their cries. If you’ve never heard them, it’s a haunting sound, even if it didn't make me cry, like my father. And Paul and his wife Helena have become so familiar with the whales through their sounds that one night Helena came running out of the lab. She picked up the phone and dialled a number.
“A-51 has had a baby,” she said.
I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe she could identify a newborn whale, just from the sound it made. But the students who come from all over the world to study the whales—and that summer there was Tomoko and Momoko from Japan, and Olivier from France, and Jeanette from Germany, and Nollwenn from Brittany—they took me into the lab and showed me the recordings logged in the past 40 years, and the technology they have to record now, and it took them a long time to convince me, but gradually I did come to believe them.
We heard the whales throughout our stay but they didn’t come close enough for us to see them, and then on the last night of our stay, Paul woke us up around midnight to say the whales were coming. And I’m going to read from my journal here:
We jumped up. I just shoved my nightgown into my jeans and we hurried to the lab, where the students were already gathered. Together we stood lined up along the deck, leaning forward on the railings to get as close as we could to the orcas as they blew and snorted their way through the water in front of us. Not one of us made a sound. Two stars shot across the sky, and it seemed to go on for a very long time. Afterwards, no one spoke. I looked up at the starstruck sky and the dusty milky way and then I went back to bed, and I could still hear the whales crying because Paul had placed speakers near the pillows in the guest bedrooms, like a baby monitor, and listening to those cries all night was so beautiful that for a while I forgot my grief and mourning for my mother and was at peace.
I want to reiterate here that I never used to understand why people cared about whales. Kittens are more my speed; big blubbery mammals...feh. But once, in 2007, I sailed in the Bering Sea, and whales surrounded our ship, and one rose up right beside where I was standing until we were eye to eye, and I was staring into this huge eye. And instead of being frightened, I was filled with a terribly embarrassing mushy feeling and I thought I was going to go around hugging everyone on the boat. And I had to restrain myself. And then I realized how my Dad felt, crying over Songs of the Humpback Whale in our living room in 1973. And he was right. And I know that if one of these supertankers has an accident, the whales that the Spongs record and an enormous amount of other marine life and the livelihood of coastal communities and, well, you’ve heard it all—it would all be at risk and what legacy do we then bequeath our children and grandchildren?
I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my views, and I’m honoured and proud to be in the company of passionate and intelligent speakers as I've heard here today. And finally I want to thank you for sitting and listening to us, because my rear end aches just thinking about all that sitting, and it can hardly be easy to hear from all the people who stand to be affected by this project.