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By Andre Carrel
I had one of the most memorable experiences in municipal management in the early years of my career in Dawson City, Yukon.
Dawson City had experienced repeated floods since its establishment in 1896, mostly as a result of ice jamming the Yukon River during spring run-off. Exceptionally severe floods occurred in 1925 and 1944.
A protective dyke, designed on the basis of flood data collected up to that time, was constructed in 1959. The very next year, in 1960, a massive ice jam caused the Yukon River to rise to a level never before measured and Dawson City was flooded again.
In response to that flood Dawson City’s protective dyke was raised in 1968.
On May 3, 1979 (I was city manager in Dawson City at the time) ice jammed up in the Yukon River, roughly six miles downstream of Dawson City, raising the water level to new record heights, and the City suffered its worst flood ever.
When Dawson City Council and the Yukon Government planned the dyke built in 1959, could they have imagined what would happen within a year of building that dyke?
By 1968, with the experience of having underestimated the flood potential of ice jams in the Yukon River, was the decision to raise the dyke four feet higher than the highest flood level ever recorded reasonable?
As the events of May 3, 1979, proved beyond any doubt is that it was not. Had there been any way for anyone to know how high the Yukon River could rise as a result of an ice jam, surely the dyke would have been designed and built accordingly.
The question is: can we know the future?
The Fukushima nuclear power plant was at first to be built on a bluff 35 metres above sea level. But that bluff was lowered by 25 metres so the reactors could be built against solid bedrock. It would also be cheaper to run the pumps providing seawater which acted as a coolant.
It’s obvious today that had the engineers, the plant’s owners or the government known what they came to know on March 11, 2011 when a tsunami struck, the plant’s design would have been different.
What Donald Rumsfeld famously called the “unknown unknowns” are things which, after lengthy investigations into the causes of incidents, accidents, and disasters appear to be obvious, causes that, with the benefit of hindsight, should have been predictable.
The consequences to some of the incidents I have referred to were limited in time and scope. The consequences for others, such as the Exxon Valdez, the Deepwater Horizon and the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, expanded and extended far beyond the location and time of the incident itself.
Some incidents, the Exxon Valdez and Costa Concordia shipwrecks for example, were caused by human neglect. Others, such as the Fukushima disaster and the Deepwater Horizon, and quite possibly the two recent saw mill explosions in British Columbia, were the result of inadequate or inappropriate facility design, construction, or maintenance — the Rumsfeld factor.
The risk exposure of the proposed Enbridge project belongs to the same class as the Fukushima power plant project and the Deepwater Horizon. If there is a disaster, the consequences will not be limited in time and location as they are following a train accident or an ice jam. The consequences of crude oil spilling into one of this region’s rivers or British Columbia’s coastal waters cannot be foretold. We cannot KNOW the circumstances, likelihood, or the full extent of such an event.
We do know that the transfer of oil, by pipeline, by ship, by train, by truck — by any means for that matter — cannot be made 100 percent spill-proof. Whatever safety and security provisions may be proposed by Enbridge and regulatory agencies, the project, if approved, WILL carry a risk of incidents whose consequences cannot be fixed, corrected, or compensated for with money.
The reasonable and therefore the only responsible conclusion is that no amount of money or economic benefit the Enbridge project may promise today can outweigh and overcome the cost of the risks linked to that project.
Andre Carrel is a retired public sector administrator living in Terrace. The above is an edited version of his presentation to the federal panel reviewing Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline plan.