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Vancouver Oil Spill Shows We've Got Lots To Learn

04/17/2015 03:52 EDT | Updated 06/17/2015 05:59 EDT
Western Canada Marine Response Corporation

Since last week's oil spill in English Bay, British Columbians living in the Lower Mainland and across the province have felt let down by their governments.

Despite big promises about "world class" spill response, what we witnessed in English Bay proves beyond a doubt that the term "world class" amounts to little more than a soundbite.

You could, however, forgive British Columbians for feeling let down for another reason. They have been watching as their politicians fall over themselves to point fingers and lay blame at their opponents' feet.

Concerns about oil spills have been growing in B.C. ever since Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline was first put forward. With Kinder Morgan's proposed Trans Mountain pipeline routed to come straight to Vancouver harbor, those concerns have come even closer to home.

Many people are now seeing first hand how unprepared we are for a spill.

However, our lack of response capacity doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the Kinder Morgan hearing process.

As I write this, we are in the midst of a seriously flawed National Energy Board hearing process on Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline. If approved, the number of oil tankers leaving Vancouver harbour would increase by 580 per cent.

In contrast to the 2,700 litres that spilled, each of these tankers would carry up to 110,000 tonnes of oil along our coastline. Unlike the bunker fuel that spilt in English Bay, which largely floats, the diluted bitumen that these tankers would carry can sink. If that happens, we currently have no way of cleaning it up.

To date, Kinder Morgan -- through the hearing process -- has refused to consider even the possibility of a spill larger than 15 per cent of what a single tanker would carry. When they did simulate a spill, they applied unrealistic conditions assuming, for instance, that wave and wind

conditions would be minimal and that there would be 20 hours of sunlight in August for clean-up crews. (For the record: You would have to go to Tuktayotuk on the Arctic coastline to find 20 hours of sunlight in August!)

Roughly one third of the nearly 600 questions I submitted were not adequately answered. And I'm not alone.

The Cities of Burnaby and Vancouver have been true leaders in the hearings. Together they have submitted thousands of questions to Trans Mountain and countless motions as they advocate for a better process. They too have struggled to get answers to even basic questions.

Sadly, that same leadership has been largely absent on the provincial scene.

In a process that affects all British Columbians, not a single B.C. NDP or B.C. Liberal MLA even applied to be an intervenor.

This hearing is the best opportunity MLAs have to evaluate our spill response capacity in the context of the proposed increase in oil tankers. It allows us to explore how prepared we are for a spill, and what steps are being planned to address the significant gaps.

My staff and I have poured hundreds of hours into this process, studying Trans Mountain's application and submitting countless questions.

That is why the finger pointing is so frustrating. It is politicking with a disaster when you have played little role in actually addressing the concerns ahead of time.

The clear absence of provincial leadership in these hearings has allowed us to get to where we are today. Had more MLAs been more vocal, we may have a more rigorous hearing process.

Yet it's not too late. I have been calling for the B.C. government to pull out of the NEB hearings and hold their own review process for some time now. The B.C. NDP and countless British Columbians have done the same. All that stands in the way is government leadership.

I hope that the spill in English Bay will spark more than just finger pointing. I hope it will serve as a wake-up call that British Columbians need to expect more from their MLAs.

They should expect us to do what's necessary to prevent a spill from occurring in the first place -- not to line up after the fact to assign blame.

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Vancouver Oil Spill, April 2015