By Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun, January 10, 2012
Indecision reigns as hearings to open
A big part of Tracey John Hittel wants to support Enbridge's proposed $5.5-billion Northern Gateway twin oil and condensate pipelines.
But as public hearings on the project begin in his community today, he is torn.
The fishing guide operator and owner of Kitimat Lodge is fearful of the risks of a pipeline spill that could harm the Kitimat River and ruin his guiding business, which attracts clients from around the world, including Germany, Australia, the United States and Japan.
But he also sees the sense in supporting new industrial jobs in Kitimat, and is already benefiting from the use of his guide boats and lodge for industrial work, including preparation for a liquefied natural gas plant.
He also says he understands there are benefits to the project for Canada as a whole, noting some of his clients work in the oil sector in Alberta.
"I'm for it and against it," said Hittel.
"If I had to vote today, I don't know where I'd put my X."
Hittel's indecision embodies that of his community, which has more to lose or gain than any other along the 1,172 kilometre pipeline route.
The community of about 9,200, located at the mouth of the Kitimat River at the head of Douglas Channel, will be the terminus of the pipeline. Here, supertankers will be loaded with oil destined for Asia, opening up new markets for bitumen from Alberta's oilsands.
An oil spill in Douglas Channel or the Kitimat River would have profound effects on the community, affecting the town's water supply, salmon and marine environment.
The project has been so controversial in Kitimat that the mayor and council have muzzled themselves, deciding they will not make any official public statements or decision on the pipeline project until after the regulatory review is complete, likely in the next 18 months.
That's a much different approach than was taken on a $3-billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal to be built in Kitimat, which council supported in 2005, from the project's inception.
The pressure is enormous, said Mayor Joanne Monaghan, who gets 15-20 emails a day from people opposed to Northern Gateway.
However, the community has seen hundreds of high-paying, industrial jobs disappear in the past decade and also stands to gain the most economically from the project.
Kitimat will get half of the 104 permanent Enbridge jobs, and another estimated 200 support jobs to supply tugs, ship pilots and emergency services. Another $318 million will be available in goods and services contracts in the Kitimat area during construction.
Hittel was one of 130 people who lost their jobs at Kitimat's Methanex plant when it closed in 2005.
"I'm really torn. This is a really tough decision for me," said Hittel. "I definitely see the big picture. I just want to have Enbridge say to me, 'We're going to be able to do whatever we can to make sure that pipeline isn't going to let go [leak].'"
The federal review will hear evidence and views from thousands of people. At the end, it will decide if the project is environmentally sound, has economic merit and is in Canada's public interest.
The heated public debate is focused on the risks and rewards of the pipeline and associated tanker traffic.
First up at the hearings in Kitimat today is the Haisla First Nation, which opposes Northern Gateway but has backed LNG development.
In Kitimat, the hearings come against a backdrop of significant erosion of its industrial job base.
In addition to the job losses at Methanex, more than 500 jobs were lost in Kitimat when West Fraser shut its linerboard and paper plant in early 2011.
Rio Tinto Alcan has moved ahead with its $2.7-billion modernization of its aluminum smelter, but it will reduce the permanent workforce to 1,000 from 1,400.
Jim Thom, owner of the North Star Inn, is unequivocal about his support for Northern Gateway.
"The town's an aging community and that's a problem. This development will bring in younger people, and a community with younger people is a healthy community," said Thom.
He dismisses concerns about an oil spill on the coast, arguing that tankers have been moving up and down the coast safely for 30 years.
On the eve of the beginning of the hearings, the Kitimat Valley Naturalists were preparing a much different message: the risks and effects of a spill are not worth any economic benefits.
Group member Walter Thorn said the aquatic life, animals and birds in Douglas Channel and Kitimat River provide a richness to the area that would be at "overwhelming" risk of being destroyed. That rich environment is also the economic basis for recreation, fishing and kayaking, he said.
A spill will destroy more than 200 jobs, said Thorn, a retired teacher.
"If something goes wrong, it will all be gone," he said.
A nine-part series examining Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, the regulatory pro-cess surrounding the $5.5-bil-lion dual-pipeline design and those who have the most to gain or lose.
Dec. 31: An overview of the players, the issues and the public process
Jan. 2: About Enbridge
Jan. 3: The effect on the first nations
Jan. 4: Environmentalists weigh in
Jan. 5: The business community
Jan. 7: The risk of pipeline spills
Jan. 8: The risk of tanker spills
Jan. 9: The politics of the project
TODAY: The view from Kitimat
Online: Read the entire series at vancouversun.com
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