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Canadian pipeline could drive up traffic in difficult Alaska waterway

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch

The cover story of the Anchorage Press this week covers the long history of cargo ships wrecking, running aground or otherwise causing the state of Alaska a load of grief while traveling the Great Circle Route, a marine thoroughfare which rubs up against the Aleutian Chain. Now a Canadian company's proposal for a new oil pipeline may dramatically add to the number of vessels traveling the Circle Route, increasing the risk of spills and mishaps in Alaska waters.

The Great Circle Route is the quickest way to ship anything from the West Coast of North America to Asia, but it is notoriously difficult -- especially in Alaska waters around the Aleutian Islands.

There are incidents involving ships traving the route that people may remember, such as in 2004 when the vessel Selendang Ayu, transporting 132 million pounds of soybeans, ran aground on Unalaska Island and spilled 338,000 gallons of fuel. But there are others not so well-known. For example, the Cougar Ace, a vessel that tipped over in 2006. Ultimately, the Ace was not a huge environmental burden, but the ship did end up losing its entire shipment of Mazda automobiles.

Rescue tugs and other forms of marine assistance are usually impossible to find along Great Circle Route, , leaving vessels traveling the area fairly vulnerable and the state of Alaska liable for any environmental impacts.

The proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline project would begin in Alberta, Canada, and run 730 miles north to the port of Kitimat in British Columbia. From there, an estimated 220 supertankers would travel the Circle Route each year. Vessels passing through will not be loaded with cute things like soybeans or Mazdas. They'll be hauling the real goods -- natural gas condensate, oil and diluted bitumen. If an accident did occur, it would be major.

However the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline is not a done deal, and it's essentially Canada's version of Pebble Mine. It still must hold up to a panel of experts, a round of public testimony and, finally, an environmental assessment. Only then can the project proceed.

Read much more at the Anchorage Press, here.