B.C. study points to inadequate oil spill response system

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Only three to four per cent of a relatively small oil spill off the north coast of B.C. would be recovered in the first five days, according to a new study commissioned by the B.C. government.

The finding is part of a detailed assessment by an international expert that brought to light weaknesses in B.C.’s spill response system. In releasing the three-volume report Thursday, the B.C. Liberal government concluded “more federal resources are needed to protect the west coast.”

In the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where resources and equipment are closer, between nine and 31 per cent of a 70,000-barrel spill would be recovered under several scenarios and seasons, stated the study by U.S.-based Nuka Research & Planning Group LLC.

Regardless of conditions, global statistics show it is universally difficult to recover oil in the event of a spill.

According to the London-based International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, even in ideal conditions in oceans around the world, only 10-15 per cent of oil is likely to be recovered.

When a spill occurs, it’s important to move quickly. While more oil could be recovered beyond the five days modelled in B.C. waters, oil also disperses over time increasing the difficulty of recovery, noted the 274-page Nuka report.

The report’s findings echo concerns raised by environmental groups, First Nations and coastal communities over two massive pipeline projects proposed in B.C. to export Alberta oilsands bitumen to Asia.

Enbridge has planned the $6.5-billion Northern Gateway oil pipeline to the northwest coast, and Kinder Morgan is pushing its $5.4-billion twinning of the Transmountain pipeline to Burnaby, which will nearly triple oil capacity.

The two projects would increase tanker traffic up to 1,000 trips a year.

Earlier this year, internal B.C. government documents also warned the province lacks the ability to manage oil spills from existing and expanded oil traffic, and even a moderate spill would overwhelm their ability to respond.

Other gaps identified by the Nuka study include a lack of an escort tug system north of Vancouver, or regulations that require tanker escorts in B.C. waters. Enbridge has said it will have escort tugs, but it would be a voluntary move.

There are also no rescue tugs stationed in B.C., with the closest tug in Washington state. Rescue tugs can respond to emergencies and potentially prevent or mitigate an accident or spill.

In B.C., commercial tugs are used as rescue tugs, which is less costly but provides less certainty, noted the report.

The study also found there is no federal or provincial law that establishes how long-term impacts to the environment or affected communities will be established or compensated.

There also may be an insufficient number of trained pilots to deal with projected increased levels of tanker traffic, said the report.

The gaps identified in the study must be closed with the help of both the federal government and industry, B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak said Thursday.

“If we are going to say we have a world-class spill response and preparedness system, we have to know what that looks like. This is going to really help us guide that,” she said in an interview.

One of B.C.’s five conditions to consider the construction and operation of heavy oil pipelines is a world-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery system.

Polak said the province is in discussions with the federal government, which has primary responsibility for marine spills.

In a news release, Transport Canada Minister Lisa Raitt welcomed the new B.C. study, noting the federal government has established a Tanker Safety Expert Panel set to deliver its finding later this year. “Our government shares a common goal with the B.C. government — the responsible development of resources to benefit all Canadians supported by a world-class marine oil spill prevention and response system,” said Raitt.

The federal Conservatives have already announced increased marine inspections, implementation of an incident command system used globally and a review of the marine liability and compensation system.

The federal standard stipulates there must be enough resources to deal with a 70,000-barrel spill of a ship’s cargo and fuel oils, the scenario modelled by Nuka.

The industry-funded Western Canada Marine Response Corp. (WCMRC) has said it has resources in place to respond to a spill of 26,000 tonnes, equivalent to about 180,000 barrels of oil.

The group has bases in Burnaby, Duncan and Prince Rupert.

However, the size of the largest tankers that would transport oil from B.C. overseas to Asia would carry more than one million barrels.

The study authors said their illustrative scenarios are not meant to discredit the capacity of the WCMRC but to highlight that a 10,000-tonne response capacity does not guarantee recovery of all the oil.

Living Oceans Society executive director Karen Wristen said the province’s study findings come as no surprise.

She said her organization presented similar findings to the National Energy Board-led hearings on the Northern Gateway project about three years ago.

“The sad thing is we could have been moving ahead on some of these issues if everybody hadn’t been denying they were issues to begin with,” said Wristen.

“According to the experts we retained on spill response and preparedness, it takes probably 10 years to create, equip and drill a team capable of responding to a major oil spill,” she added.

The provincial NDP said the new study showed it’s time for the B.C. Liberals to take a stand against the Enbridge pipeline project.

“The report shows B.C. doesn’t even have spill response capacity to effectively handle existing threats to our marine environment,” said NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbert.

Source: The Vancouver Sun

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