A Pipeline (could) run through it

Trent Ernst, Editor


Over the next few years, Enbridge has got to satisfy 209 different conditions imposed by the National Energy Board before it can move forward with its proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, something that they are working hard to complete.

The pipeline would run 1178 km from the Oil Sands of Alberta, near Fort McMurray, to Kitimat, on the British Columbia Coast.

At km 519, the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline would cross the Alberta Boundary into BC. At km 626, the pipeline would pass the height of land at the head of Imperial Creek and into the Hominka Drainage.

Between the two, for a distance of about 107 km, the Northern Gateway Pipeline would run through the Tumbler Ridge area, passing near Stony Lake, following the old Monkman Pass Highway, then crossing the Murray River and Following the Imperial Creek drainage up and then over the Rocky Mountains.

While a number of previous pipeline projects have looked at the pass before, Northern Gateway, if it goes ahead, would be the first major pipeline to do so.

The pipeline will be buried along nearly all its route. (One of the few exceptions will be discussed later on.) Ray Douring, Director of Project Services for Northern Gateway, explains the basic process. “You have to prepare the pipeline right of way,” says Douring. “You have to harvest a 25 m path for the pipeline. Depending on terrain, we might have to level some of it. The ditch in which the pipeline is installed is made by backhoes. In some places you’ll have bedrock, and it might require some blasting. That’s very normal pipeline construction. Most of this area is glacial till, so it can be excavated mostly using hoes.

“The pipeline itself is constructed above the ditch. We do the welds, prepare a special coating, and then long sections are then lowered into the ditch. The ditch is then backfilled, careful to not damage the pipe. Sometime we may have to bring in material.

“After that, we restore the natural grade along the right of way back to the original lay of the land. Before it is put into service, the pipeline goes through hydro testing, using water to pressure it to a higher than normal pressure to make sure there’s no issues, and confirming the welds are good, that the pipe is good.”

After the pipeline is good to go, the right of way would be re-vegitated. The province would work with province to determine appropriate vegetation. “We do need to maintain it, so we don’t have trees growing on it. Instead, it will be covered with natural grasses and ground cover.”

And therein lies part of the problem the company has faced. The pass over the mountains at the head of Imperial Creek is very low, passing through a flat, broad valley that doesn’t even make it above tree level. It is those qualities, says Douring, that make the route appealing for a pipeline.

But the route passes through, if only on the fringes of, the Quintette and Hart caribou range. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has listed these herds as “Threatened”.

Northern Gateway is obligated to maintain a 25-metre right-of-way where trees wouldn’t be allowed to grow. This is of concern to many people concerned with the recovery of the caribou, as this right-of-way provides a highway for predators like wolves to access caribou habitat they otherwise would have had difficulty accessing. For instance, last year, Chris Tollefson, executive director of the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre, appeared before the National Energy Board to speak against the project. “For caribou, a big problem is they don’t like to cross big open linear disturbances because wolves are smart,” he said. “Wolves hang out at the edge of those disturbances, and an open linear disturbance like that is like a bowling alley: They just chase the caribou down.”

A number of the conditions set before Northern Gateway deal with impact on caribou and caribou habitat.

The three main types of potential effects to woodland caribou are reduced habitat, as natural areas are cleared for construction or through sensory disturbance, changes in wildlife movement patterns, particularly along the right-of-way, and mortality from predators, potential vehicle collisions or illegal hunting activities.

According to the Northern Gateway Website: “Environment Canada recommended mitigation measures consistent with the boreal Woodland Caribou Recovery Strategy, such as locating the pipeline in previously disturbed areas, avoiding a net gain in access, offsetting affected habitat in the Little Smoky range, and using an adaptive management approach to mitigation. Northern Gateway has committed to employ a wide range of mitigation measures and environmental protection measures to minimize adverse environmental effects on the five caribou ranges crossed by the pipelines. These include several comprehensive initiatives that far exceed industry standards, including fully compensating for habitat losses to the point where they are restored to a better condition than exists currently.”

In order to build the pipeline, Northern Gateway must file a preliminary Caribou Habitat Restoration Plan with the National Energy Board for approval at least six months before commencing work in the area.

Concerns like caribou habitat this are being taken seriously, says Douring. “We do meet with a lot of different interest groups to know what should remain. This is crown land. This is public land, so we talk to a lot of people. We don’t take ownership of the land, we just have the right to build a pipeline.”

And a big part of that, says Douring, is access management. “What access do we need to build?” he asks. “What are we keeping? What access would other stakeholders like to see, or, often more important, what do they want to see removed. Some communities say ‘we don’t want people to access this.”

Would access through this area be maintained? Would this be the mythical ‘short cut to Prince George’ that has been rumoured ever since the Monkman Pass route was abandoned? Douring doesn’t think so. “The area here is caribou habitat, though the pipeline doesn’t go through core habitat, but fringe. The province’s perspective is they wouldn’t want to see access through that area. There are a few different herds to the north and south that migrate through this area. From the province’s perspective, they wouldn’t want to see access through that. But we will be soliciting comments from different user groups to find out.”

“Once it gets over the pass, it follows the Missinka River and the roads down there. There’s lots of road access. In fact, there’s a fairly extensive road system up the Imperial Creek Valley.”

This is one of the key proposals for the pipeline: to follow existing roadways, cutlines and other disturbances to the environment to minimize the pipeline’s impact.

However, says Douring, between the two road networks, there is about 20 km where the pipeline will have to pass through previously undisturbed territory.

Douring says that this section is one of the longest sections where the pipeline can’t follow existing disturbances. “Access wouldn’t be required for operation,” he says, “so it would be reclaimed.”

While the route has been planned and a lot of work has been done, a lot of work has yet to be done, says Douring, and a lot of that will be talking to various groups and communities.

Something that Northern Gateway will be discussing with the District of Tumbler Ridge is the pump station. “Pump stations on this will be every 100 km or 200 km,” says Douring. “You need one here, especially since you have this elevation gain.”

The pump station will be found alongside the Murray Creek Forest Service Road. While they are still tweaking the final location, it will be around the 599 km mark of the pipeline, just outside of Monkman Provincial Park.

This is important for a variety of reasons. Access to the pump station will be along the Murray Forest Service Road, and the station will be manned 24 hours a day. “The site will host teams of maintenance workers,” says Douring, “so we’re going to be entering into a road use agreement.”

Over the course of the pipeline, there will be hundreds of these road use agreements, but this one is most interesting as the company will need to maintain the road to the station, meaning the road will most likely be maintained to a higher standard than it has been currently. However, it is too early to determine what that will mean, says the District.  “After the project roads are left in better shape than before, says Douring. “Road upgrades are not uncommon.”

In order to cross the Murray Forest Service Road, a tunnel will be bored underneath the road, so there wouldn’t be any closures to the road itself. However, to cross the Murray River, the current plan is to do an aerial crossing.

“That’s unacceptable,” says Randy Gulick. Randy is a tourism operator who runs jet boat tours on the Murray. “Kinuseo Falls is one of BC’s most spectacular sites, and you take people down there and you have a pipeline less than a mile downstream. People will look and say ‘oh look, there’s a monster pipeline.”

Douring says that, while it’s not written in stone, he suspects the crossing will be aerial. “We’re still in the process of doing geotechnical work at the Murray. The Murray is a challenging river to cross. A little farther north there’s an aerial crossing. That’s our preferred method, too.”

The crossing he is referring to piggy-backs under a bridge, says Gulick, not on its own. Unfortunately, the nearest downstream bridge over the Murray is 11 km below their current planned crossing, which would require a major re-routing, something that Gulick can’t see happening. “Their proposed route doesn’t make that possible. For minimal impact they should be boring underneath the river. They do it all the time. They do it on most of the crossings.”

In fact, says Douring, this is one of only six rivers that is proposed to be crossed aerially. The issue, he says, is the ground beneath the river is “geotechnically challenging.

“We know that certain ground conditions make it not feasible to do this. If you’ve got large cobbled rocks, for instance. We know from past experience of people who have tried, they’ve had a lot of problems. What they’re finding along the Murray is the potential for large cavities and fracture zones. Horizontal drilling uses high pressure mud to drill; if you have large openings, the mud just spurts into there and you lose pressure. That’s been the experience of others. But if our data says we can do horizontal directional drilling, we would prefer that.”

Douring says they’re doing what they can to minimize the impact. “There’s no structure in the water,” he says. “You would have a support structure set back on either side, and then you have cable supports. The pipeline would be quite high above the channel, minimum 15 metres. There would be no navigation issues for jet boats, canoes, kayaks. There’s lots of clearance.”

Unfortunately, says Gulick, it takes away from the sense of being in a remote provincial park.  “It’s just going to be an eyesore. It’s going to be one of the biggest eyesores on the river. There’s another pipeline crossing between the Quintette Bridge and the town bridge, and that is underground. Maybe there are reasons why they can’t bore under the river, but I think they should try. If it’s worth building, then do it right. I’m not opposed to the pipeline, just to the aerial crossing.”

If they can’t bore under, says Gulick, why can’t they go around? He suggests re-routing the pipeline so that it runs above the falls. While, as Douring says, the route is trying to follow previously disturbed area, Gulick points out that the aerial crossing would have to cross undisturbed ground, too. But cutting across country to cross at the Imperial Creek Bridge would be less visually disturbing than crossing below the falls.

These are not issues that need to be solved now. Enbridge had been hoping to have the pipeline up and running in four years, but that timeframe has fallen by the wayside, as they work to build support for the pipeline, especially west of the Rockies.

But over the next few years, the company will be working through these issues with both local governments and with local user groups.