04/11/2015 08:00 EDT | Updated 06/13/2015 09:59 EDT

Canola oil spill in Vancouver nets charges against West Coast Reduction

As politicians argue about the response to an oil spill in Vancouver's English Bay, charges have been filed against a company accused in one of the biggest spills on B.C.'s southwest coast in the past decade.

CBC News has learned canola oil shipping firm West Coast Reduction appeared in Vancouver provincial court Wednesday on four counts of violating the Fisheries and Migratory Birds Convention acts.

The charges are in relation to a spill of two tonnes of canola oil in Burrard Inlet in November 2013.

"These waters need protecting from the products that you move and you can't just simply not take responsibility when a spill happens," said Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance.

"So [the fact] that the charges were laid is actually very good news, and we can only hope that more polluters will be held to account for the variety of pollutants that end up in our waters."

'Very serious matter'

According to a sworn information, the spill happened on Nov. 24, 2013 at or near the Port of Vancouver's Vanterm Berth 4, in the Downtown Eastside.

The oil was allegedly being transported via a concrete connection vault.

According to West Coast Reduction's website, the "company is a key player in moving Canadian food oils, including more than $1 billion worth of canola oil, to international markets."

"This is a very serious matter for us," said Ken Ingram, director of technical and environmental services.

Ingram declined further comment as the matter is before the courts, with arraignment set for May 13.

In the light of attention surrounding the English Bay spill, environmentalists say the case highlights the need for enforcement of environmental regulations.

Despite its green reputation, canola oil can be life-threatening to birds because it causes their feathers to separate and mat, exposing them to extreme temperatures.

Wildlife Rescue Association spokesperson Yolanda Brooks says the organization frequently treats birds covered with vegetable oil, mostly through uncovered waste containers behind restaurants.

"It's just not good for any wildlife," she said.

"It damages birds just as much as other types of oil, so I'm glad that Environment Canada are going after the people that are responsible for the pollution."

'Doesn't happen enough'

But Ecojustice lawyer Lara Tessaro says Environment Canada has a spotty record on enforcement. The maximum penalty for conviction under the Migratory Birds Act is $1 million or three years in prison.

"It definitely doesn't happen enough," Tessaro said.

"You rarely see Environment Canada and the department of Fisheries and Oceans using the full gamut of their enforcement powers to prosecute polluters, and when they do use those powers, it sends the right message to polluters."

But Environment Canada has cracked down on some offenders in recent years.

The Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District was fined $5,000 last year for releasing raw sewage into Burrard Inlet in July 2011. The district also had to contribute $105,000 to an environmental damages fund.

And in 2011, two contractors and Trans Mountain Pipeline were ordered to pay $550,000 in fines and penalties for their role in a 2007 oil spill pollution incident in Burnaby, B.C.

'Terrible and unacceptable situation'

As Canada's former federal environment commissioner, Scott Vaughan produced highly critical reports on both oil spill response in 2010 and enforcement of environmental laws in 2011.

He stepped down in 2013, but the office of the new federal commissioner says his reports are the last time they specifically looked at either issue.

"It's unfortunate that the times when we have this discussion around enforcement and compliance is when you're having a terrible and unacceptable situation like what's happening right now," Vaughan said from Ottawa, where he now heads the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Vaughan's report on oil spill responses pointed to the kind of communications problems between various agencies which have been questioned in the latest spill.

"In an emergency, you can't wait around to figure out, 'Well is it my role, or is it somebody else's role?' and every minute of a delay has some potential impact," he said.

Resources in question

Vaughan says the Coast Guard were very responsive to his recommendations, which included better emergency planning.

He said Environment Canada also responded to his 2011 report, which found "significant problems" with enforcement programs. 

But resources remain in question: according to the department's 2014-2015 Report on Plans and Priorities, Environment Canada plans to cut spending on compliance promotion and enforcement from $37.7 million in 2015-2016 to $29.4 million in 2016-2017.

"Governments are having to do more with less," Vaughan said.

"One of the biggest challenges for people within government is to say, 'How do you do this in a smarter way?'"

Environment Canada did not provide comment.

None of the charges against West Coast Reduction have been proven in court.