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Trans Mountain Pipeline Spills up to 50,000 Gallons of Oil on Indigenous Land in BC

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Trans Mountain Pipeline Spills up to 50,000 Gallons of Oil on Indigenous Land in BC
The Sumas Pump Station on June 13, 2020, prior to clean-up. Transmountain

Canada's Trans Mountain pipeline spilled as many as 190,000 liters (approximately 50,193 gallons) of crude oil in Abbotsford, British Columbia (BC) Saturday, reinforcing concerns about the safety of the pipeline's planned expansion.


Chief Dalton Silver of the Sumas First Nation told CTV News that the spill occurred on his reserve on fields over an aquifer that supplies his nation with drinking water. It marks the fourth time in 15 years that the pipeline has spilled on his community's land.

"We cannot continue to have our land desecrated by oil spills," he said in a statement issued by the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) Sunday.

The spill occurred early Saturday morning at the pipeline's Sumas Pump Station, Trans Mountain told CBC News. The company said no construction work related to the pipeline's expansion was being done at the time of the spill.

Instead, the spill appeared to have been connected to a fitting on a smaller piece of pipe attached to the main line, the company said in a statement.

"The cause of the incident is under investigation and that will continue," company spokesperson Ali Hounsell told CTV News. "At this time, it's believed to be a failure of a small-diametre, one-inch piece of pipe."

The company estimated that between 940 to 1,195 barrels (or 150,000 to 190,000 liters) of oil was released and fully contained.

"Clean-up is well underway with trucks and crews working around the clock," the company said in a Sunday afternoon statement. "The free-standing oil has been recovered and is being transported to an approved facility for disposal. The site has permanent groundwater monitoring in place and air monitoring continues. Monitoring has not identified any risk to the public or community."

The pipeline was initially shut off in response to the spill, but restarted around 2 p.m. local time Sunday.

The company said it was working with local authorities and Indigenous communities on the clean-up, but Silver told CityNews 1130 he had not received timely, accurate updates about the amount spilled or the company's restarting plans.

"That they're up and running Sunday afternoon, my sister just read that to me off her phone. That was the first I heard of it, so there you go with the openness and transparency," Silver said. "I would really rather hear it from those at the incident command post."

Many Indigenous communities, environmental groups and the BC government oppose the expansion of the pipeline, which would triple the oil it carries from Alberta's tar sands to the Pacific coast. They are concerned about its impact on the climate crisis, Indigenous sovereignty, local water supplies and endangered orcas that would be harmed by increased tanker traffic.

Oil spills have also remained a persistent worry for pipeline opponents.

"We conducted our own assessment of Trans Mountain using leading science and Tsleil-Waututh's Indigenous law that concluded that oil spills are inevitable, can't be fully cleaned up, and have devastating effects," Chief Leah George-Wilson of Tsleil-Waututh Nation said in the UBCIC statement. "This most recent spill is another reminder that the risk is too great to accept. The Trans Mountain pipeline has already spilled more than 80 times since it began operating. This is why we continue to fight the Trans Mountain Expansion in the courts."

The BC Ministry of Environment told CBC News that Saturday's spill was "deeply concerning."

"Our government maintains that the TMX project poses unacceptable risks to our environment, our coast and our economy," the ministry in a statement.

Meanwhile, BC Indigenous communities pledged continuing opposition.

"The price of oil has plummeted due to decreased demand caused by COVID-19, and yet another pipeline spill is like a nail in the coffin for investors," UBCIC Vice President Chief Don Tom said in a statement. "The ongoing demonstrations across Turtle Island right now show that people are ready to stand up and defend their beliefs including upholding Indigenous Title and Rights. I have no doubt this will extend to the widespread opposition that already exists to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion."

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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