Vancouver's Oil Spill Protocol Still Isn't Up To Snuff: City

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VANCOUVER — When the MV Marathassa leaked at least 2,700 litres of bunker fuel into Vancouver's harbour one year ago, the effects of the spill reached far beyond the city's picturesque waters and beaches.

Delays in clean-up and notification of the city sparked public outrage, drew attention to Conservative cuts to the Canadian Coast Guard and prompted a flurry of campaign promises from the New Democrats and Liberals.

The miscommunication and uncertainty of roles that caused the delays were revealed months later in an independent report, which made a number of recommendations that the coast guard says it is implementing.

But city manager Sadhu Johnston says despite improvements made by the federal government — including reopening the Kitsilano coast guard base and working toward a regional response plan — fears about oil spills still loom large.

vancouver oil spill

"Not a ton has changed since last year,'' he said. "There's been planning and engagement together, but we're still not there yet. We're still not ready for a major tanker spill in this region.''

The spill on April 8, 2015, while relatively small, happened when concerns were running high in Vancouver about increased tanker traffic that would be caused by Kinder Morgan's proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

A passing boater first reported seeing oil in English Bay just before 5 p.m. But due to a series of miscommunications, cleanup organization Western Canada Marine Response Corp. wasn't activated until about 8 p.m., says an independent report commissioned by the coast guard and written by retired assistant commissioner John Butler.

Butler's report also says the province failed to promptly alert the city because the extent of the spill hadn't been realized. City staff didn't learn of the incident until 6 a.m. on April 9, around the same time an oil-absorbing boom was installed around the ship.

vancouver oil spill

Coun. Andrea Reimer said the incident involving a bulk grain carrier revealed serious gaps in preparedness and response that would be critical during a larger spill from an oil tanker.

"We do not have confidence that there's anywhere near the capacity that would be needed to deal with existing oil shipments, let alone vastly increased ones under an expanded pipeline proposal.''

Michael Davies, senior director of marine development at Kinder Morgan Canada, said an extra $100 million will go to Western Canada Marine Response Corp., which includes 100 new people at five bases.

"While there are certainly differing views on the (Trans Mountain pipeline expansion), one has to see the marine enhancements as an overall benefit to spill response.''

vancouver oil spill
Crews from the Western Canada Marine Response Corp. work to clean up the damage in April 2015. (Photo: Western Canada Marine Response/Facebook)

The Canadian Coast Guard said in a statement it has made significant progress, either completing or initiating all of Butler's recommendations. Staff have received additional training, notification procedures have been improved, and four major spill response exercises were undertaken last year.

The Liberal government included $23.59 million in this year's budget to fulfill its campaign promise to reopen the Kitsilano coast guard base, a station that's close to the spill site that was shuttered by the Conservatives in 2013.

The coast guard is also in the final drafting stages of a response plan for Greater Vancouver, which will inform how organizations including the coast guard, city agencies and Western Marine Response Corp. work together if there's a spill.

"This was really the first time that all these different entities worked together on this type of incident,'' said Michael Lowry, communications manager for Western Marine Response Corp. "It's pretty clear that it would be a bit smoother the next time around if there was some more planning that was done in advance.''

kitsilano coast guard base
The Kitsilano Coast Guard base was reopened in December 2015. (Photo: Darryl Dyck/CP)

The corporation has purchased new equipment to improve its ability to assess the severity of spills, including drones and a blimp that can be launched from its vessels with an infrared camera that works in fog or at night, Lowry said.

B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak said while marine spills are a federal responsibility, the province has introduced legislation to establish new requirements for spill preparedness, response and recovery, and to create new penalties and offences.

Transport Canada launched an investigation of the spill last year with the potential for charges or fines against the vessel's owners. The federal agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Alassia NewShips Management, the Greece-based operator of the MV Marathassa, said in a statement it has been co-operating with authorities and expressed its appreciation to all who assisted with the response.

"The legacy of any incident must be to understand exactly what happened so that it will not happen again and we are committed to that.''

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.

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