Major oil spill could expose a million people to benzene, Vancouver council hears

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Up to a million people could be exposed to unsafe levels of benzene, a chemical used to dilute bitumen, in the event of a major oil spill in Vancouver Harbour.

      This was one of the risks presented to Vancouver council today (May 27) as the city submitted its evidence to the National Energy Board regarding the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline by Kinder Morgan.

      Briefing council about input provided by various experts, deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston noted that a major oil leakage could cause significant air quality and health issues.

      According to Johnston’s presentation, one scenario would see up to 31,000 people exposed to benzene levels that would cause health impacts.

      His briefing also noted that on parts of the Stanley Park seawall, benzene levels could cause “irreversible health effects”.

      “Other gases are projected to be at levels that have life-threatening health effects,” Johnston’s presentation warned.

      Here’s how the presentation described benzene exposure symptoms: “Dizziness, excitation, pallor, followed by flushing, weakness, headache, breathlessness, chest constriction, nausea, and vomiting. Coma and possible death.”

      In addition to benzene, other chemicals used to dilute bitumen include propane, butane, pentane, hexane, and hydrogen sulfide. "All of which are toxic and some carcinogenic," according to Johnston's presentation.

      The report also addressed Kinder Morgan’s assertion that it has a good history of pipeline safety.

      The presentation noted that a spill occured in 1953, on the day the Trans Mountain pipeline began operation.

      From 1961 to 2013, there were 81 spills reported to the NEB, according to the report, which averaged 1.5 times per year.

      "Spills of nearly 6 million litres have been uncontained," Johnston's report went on.

      The senior city manager also noted that Kinder Morgan's risk assessment is "flawed" and does not provide the full extent of the potential dangers of an oil spill "by excluding high consequence events (such as a tanker spill in Burrard Inlet)".

      "A spill at the terminal or in the Inlet over any 50-year period has a 79 to 87 per cent likelihood," the report stated.

      The report noted that based on computer simulations for four locations in Burrard Inlet made by experts contracted by the city, 50 percent to 90 percent of discharged oil will reach shorelines in all scenarios.

      "Diluted bitumen, once spilled rapidly looses the high‐volatility components (benzene and others) which creates toxic vapour," according to the presentation.

      The potential economic impact of a major spill is staggering.

      According to the report, a spill in the month of May could causes losses ranging from $380 million to $1.2 billion.

      It would also deal a huge blow to Vancouver's brand as a clean, green, and sustainable city, which the presentation indicated to be worth $31 billion, based on estimates by experts.

      The report said a spill could hit Vancouver's brand by as much as $3 billion.

      Speaking after Johnston's presentation, Mayor Gregor Robertson said that the $3-billion potential damage to Vancouver's image is "shocking".

      According to Robertson, who campaigned in the last election on opposing increased oil tanker traffic in Burrard Inlet, that is the "big picture".

      Robertson moved to have council reaffirm its opposition to the Kinder Morgan expansion, but NPA councillor Elizabeth Ball called for more time for councillors to digest the report.

      Ball explained that councillors received the report in the morning prior to the meeting. Robertson agreed to postpone consideration of his motion, which council will take up in two weeks.




      May 28, 2015 at 9:21am

      Benzene is a potent carcinogen, that is a scientifically-proven fact. It causes leukemia and related blood disorders (aplastic anemia), this has been noted in countless work environments where people are exposed to benzene such as the printing industry, rubber production, etc. Moreover there have been "leukemia clusters" such as the one in Fallon, Nevada, where 17 children were diagnosed with leukemia between 1997-2001 that are directly attributed to benzene from jet fuel that was leaked into the water. Here is an article that even mentions Kinder-Morgan:

      Blair King

      May 30, 2015 at 8:04pm

      The only problem with this story is that the Summary of Evidence presented at Council did not explain what was meant by "benzene" in the underlying technical report. It was not the benzene known to chemists and toxicologists but a pseudo-component used as a surrogate. So no a spill would not produce a toxic plume of benzene.