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The Government's Oil Spill Plans Are a Bit Too Slick

Posted: 04/04/2013 5:39 pm

The federal government's recently stated intention to establish a "world-class oil spill response and prevention" plan is clearly designed to assuage public fears in British Columbia over the dramatic increase in oil tanker traffic that would accompany the Enbridge Northern Gateway project and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's announcement, however, does little to diminish the risk or change the nature of shipping oil on the B.C. coast. The reality is that human nature and physical nature are the forces that produce tragedies at sea. Unforeseen events that inevitably occur in narrow channels, high-traffic corridors and bad weather increase the risk of oil tanker accidents on B.C.'s coast. Major oil spills show that despite assurances of low risk and advanced technology, poor decisions still lead to major incidents. Groundings, collisions, equipment failures and explosions are all cited as causes for accidents, but these are consequences, not causes. Root causes of incidents are more insidious, with human error, cost-cutting and miscommunication foremost among them.

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  • Niger Delta ExxonMobil Spill, Nigeria - May 2010

    In Nigeria's Akwa Ibom State, an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured on May 1 and spilled over a million gallons of oil, <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/30/oil-spills-nigeria-niger-delta-shell" target="_hplink">reported the <em>Guardian</em></a>. The leak continued for seven days before it was stopped. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/omoyele-sowore/the-oil-spill-no-ones-tal_b_649220.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost blogger Omoyele Sowore explained</a> in July 2010 that an oil spill from ExxonMobil operations was nothing new to the country. He wrote that an "environmental catastrophe [had] been going on since December 2009." He described the toll on Nigeria: "There's oil on the surface of the ocean, wildlife coated in crude, fishermen losing their businesses." In 2011, the Nigerian government said there had been <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/05/world/la-fg-nigeria-oil-20110805">more than 7,000 oil spills</a> in the country between 1970 and 2000 that could take up to 30 years and $1 billion to clean up.

  • Trans-Alaska Pipeline Spill - May 2010

    In May 2010, several thousand barrels of oil spilled from the Trans-Alaska pipeline "during a scheduled pipeline shutdown at a pump station near Fort Greely," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/26/alaska-oil-spill-trans-al_n_589974.html" target="_hplink">explained AP</a>. No injuries were reported and officials said the spill was likely "limited to the gravel on top of the containment area's line."

  • Red Butte Creek Spill, Utah - June 2010

    In June 2010, a Chevron pipeline ruptured and spilled oil into a creek near Salt Lake City, Utah. It was first estimated that over 17,000 to 21,000 gallons spilled into the creek, which leads into the Great Salt Lake, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/12/utah-oil-spill-500-gallon_n_610232.html#s99698" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Around 150 birds were "identified for rehabilitation." The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/14/utah-oil-spill-officials-_n_611014.html" target="_hplink">oil did not reach the Great Salt Lake</a>, however. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/14/chevron-cited-for-oil-spi_n_646340.html" target="_hplink">Chevron was later cited for the spill</a>, which released an estimated 33,000 gallons in total. In March 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120324/us-oil-spill-utah/" target="_hplink">a group of 66 residents of a Salt Lake City neighborhood sued Chevron</a> for damage caused by the Red Butte Creek spill and a smaller spill in December 2011.

  • Kalamazoo River Spill, Michigan - July 2010

    In late July 2010, an Enbridge pipeline in southwestern Michigan sprung a leak and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/27/michigan-oil-spill-among_n_661196.html" target="_hplink">spilled over 800,000 gallons of oil into a creek</a> which flows into the Kalamazoo River. By August, a regional EPA administrator said that significant progress had been made at the site, but "the agency cautioned that it will take months to complete the cleanup," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/02/michigan-oil-spill-epa-of_n_667556.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. By the end of September, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/27/michigan-oil-pipeline-res_n_741233.html" target="_hplink">the pipeline -- which travels from Ontario to Indiana -- was back in operation</a>. The EPA later <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20111116/us-michigan-river-oil-spill/" target="_hplink">reported that about 1.1 million gallons of oil were recovered</a>, but pipeline operator Enbridge said that it would stick with previous estimates that only about 843,000 gallons were spilled.

  • Xingag Harbor Spill, Dailan, China - July 2010

    In July 2010, China experienced what was reported as the "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/21/china-oil-spill-grows-off_n_653852.html#s120708" target="_hplink">country's largest reported oil spill</a>" after a pipeline rupture near the northeastern port city of Dailan. Several days after the spill, cleanup efforts were underway over a 165 square mile (430 square kilometer) area of the Yellow Sea. The Chinese government reported that about 1,500 tons or 461,790 gallons of oil had spilled, but <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/30/china-oil-spill-far-bigge_n_665038.html#s120708" target="_hplink">experts contended that the spill could have been "dozens of times larger,"</a> reported AP.

  • Peace River Spill, Alberta, Canada - April 2011

    In late April 2011, a pipeline in northwestern Alberta began leaking, and created the worst spill in the province in 36 years, <a href="http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/alberta/Rainbow+pipeline+leak+largest+years/4720888/story.html" target="_hplink">reported the <em>Calgary Herald</em></a>. About 1,176,000 gallons of oil were reportedly spilled from the Rainbow pipeline, which is operated by Plains Midstream Canada. The <em>Globe and Mail</em> revealed that the pipeline operators "<a href="http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/oil-on-rainbow-line-halted-8-hours-after-problem-detected/article2013335/" target="_hplink">detected a potential problem nearly eight hours before halting the flow of crude</a>." A nearby school in a First Nation community was closed after residents reported "nausea, burning eyes and other symptoms," and several animals were found dead. In late July, Plains Midstream <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/07/28/alberta-pipeline-owner-as_n_912796.html" target="_hplink">requested to re-open the pipeline</a> and begin to ship oil to Edmonton again.

  • Bohai Bay Spill, China - June 2011

    In June 2011, an oil <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/01/china-offshore-oil-spills-bohai-bay_n_888473.html" target="_hplink">spill occurred about 25 miles off the coast of China's Shandong province</a> in Bohai Bay. A second spill followed in July. In late August, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/26/new-seeps-in-china-spill_n_937809.html" target="_hplink">it was reported</a> that ConocoPhillips had discovered more oil seeps in Bohai Bay, although only "1 to 2 liters (a quarter to a half-gallon) of oil and drilling mud were being released each day." The company reported that the 2011 spills released 29,400 gallons of oil and 2,500 barrels of drilling mud into the bay and that most of it was recovered. In September, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/05/china-oil-spill-conocophillips_n_949745.html" target="_hplink">China's State Oceanic Administration claimed that oil was still seeping</a> underwater. In early 2012, Texas-based ConocoPhillips <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120124/as-china-oil-spill/" target="_hplink">reached a settlement deal with the Chinese government</a> for $160 million.

  • Yellowstone River Spill, Montana - July 2011

    In July 2011, a pipeline beneath Montana's Yellowstone River ruptured and sent an oil plume 25 miles downstream, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/02/yellowstone-oil-spill-pro_n_889363.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Despite reassurances from ExxonMobil that the pipeline was safe, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/06/yellowstone-river-oil-spill-exxon-mobil_n_891246.html" target="_hplink">the July spill released what was originally estimated to be 42,000 gallons of oil</a>. With other 1,000 workers assisting the cleanup, ExxonMobil <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/04/yellowstone-river-cleanup-costs_n_1077106.html" target="_hplink">estimated that it would cost $135 million to clean the river</a>. In January 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/19/exxon-yellowstone-oil-spill_n_1216830.html" target="_hplink">it was reported</a> that ExxonMobil had increased its estimate of the spill size by 21,000 gallons. AP later <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/06/yellowstone-river-spill-response-plan_n_1408328.html" target="_hplink">reported the estimated spill size as 63,000 gallons</a>. <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> A previous version of this slide stated the estimated spill size as 63,000 barrels instead of gallons.</em>

  • North Sea Spill, United Kingdom - Aug. 2011

    In August 2011, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/15/north-sea-spill-uk-oil-spill_n_927078.html" target="_hplink">an oil rig off the eastern coast of Scotland began leaking</a> oil into the North Sea. Royal Dutch Shell, which operates the Gannet Alpha oil rig, initially reported that 54,600 gallons of oil were spilled. A second leak soon occurred, turning the spill into the worst in the North Sea in a decade, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/16/north-sea-oil-spill-shell_n_927941.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Several days later, Shell announced that it had "closed a valve from which oil was spilling into the North Sea," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/19/shell-says-it-has-closed-_n_931379.html" target="_hplink">according to AP</a>. The spill released about 1,300 barrels of oil, which spread out over a 2.5 square mile (6.7 square kilometer) area.

  • Campos Basin Spill, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Nov. 2011

    In mid-November 2011, Brazilian authorities began investigating an offshore spill near Rio de Janeiro, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/17/chevron-oil-spill-brazil_n_1100062.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Chevron initially reported that between 400 and 650 barrels of oil had spilled into the Atlantic, while a nonprofit environmental group using satellite imagery estimated that the spill rate was at least 3,738 barrels per day. Chevron soon claimed full responsibility for the spill. The brazilian division's COO said, Chevron "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/20/brazil-oil-spill-chevron-_n_1104070.html" target="_hplink">takes full responsibility for this incident</a>," and that "any oil on the surface of the ocean is unacceptable to Chevron," reported AP. In December, Brazilian prosecutors announced that they were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/14/brazil-oil-spill-chevron-payment_n_1149554.html"target="_hplink">seeking $10.6 billion in damages</a> from Chevron for the spill that leaked nearly 126,000 gallons of oil. In March 2012, a Brazilian federal judge <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/18/brazil-oil-spill-chevron_n_1355923.html" target="_hplink">allowed prosecutors to file criminal charges against Chevron and Transocean</a> and 17 executives from both companies were barred from leaving Brazil.

  • Rena Spill, New Zealand - Oct. 2011

    In October 2011, a Liberian-flagged cargo ship ran aground on a reef in Northern New Zealand and began leaking oil. With oil washing up on shore, a government minister deemed it <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/11/new-zealand-oil-spill_n_1004643.html" target="_hplink">the country's largest maritime environmental disaster</a> a week later. Although over 2,000 sea birds were killed by the spill that spilled about 400 tons of fuel oil, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/22/new-zealand-oil-spill-penguins_n_1107289.html" target="_hplink">343 little blue penguins were rescued and cleaned of oil</a>. <em>[<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/22/new-zealand-oil-spill-penguins-released_n_1151788.html" target="_hplink">Watch video of the penguins' release into the wild here.</a>]</em> In January, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/10/new-zealand-oil-spill-ship_n_1196568.html" target="_hplink">half of the stricken Rena began sinking</a> into the sea after breaking apart and spilling over 100 cargo containers.

  • Nigeria Oil Spill - Dec. 2011

    The spill, which took place near the coast of Nigeria, was reported as "likely the worst to hit those waters in a decade," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/22/shell-oil-spill-nigeria_n_1164891.html" target="_hplink">according to AP</a>. After two days, the spill had affected 115 miles (185 kilometers) of Nigerian coastline. Several days after the December 20 spill, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/26/shell-nigeria-oil-spill_n_1170198.html" target="_hplink">Shell reported that the leak -- which occurred about 75 miles offshore -- had been contained before it reached the Nigerian coast</a>. The spill, which covered 350 square miles of ocean at its peak, was reported as having released less than "40,000 barrels -- or 1.68 million gallons" of oil.

  • Red Deer River Spill, Alberta, Canada - June 2012

    In June 2012, 126,000 gallons of sour crude oil leaked from a submerged pipeline into the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/08/alberta-oil-spill-red-deer-river_n_1581008.html">Red Deer River in Alberta, Canada</a> before being swept downstream to the Gleniffer Lake and Reservoir, a main source of drinking water for several communities near the spill. A $75 million <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/22/red-deer-river-oil-spill-lawsuit_n_1620267.html">class-action lawsuit was filed</a> against the owners of the pipelines, and in October 2012, the Canadian government <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/08/07/red-deer-river-fishing_n_1752902.html">banned fishing in the river </a>in order to study the long-term environmental impacts of the spill. This was the second major spill in the province and for the company that owns the line, <a href="http://www.plainsmidstream.com/">Plains Midstream Canada</a>, in two years. In 2011, 1.1 million gallons of oil leaked into the Peace River from a damaged pipeline in a remote corner of the province.

  • Arthur Kill Oil Spill - October 2012

    In October 2012, 336,000 gallons of diesel fuel <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/01/arthur-kill-oil-spill-new-jersey_n_2054267.html">spilled into the Arthur Kill waterway</a> as a result of Superstorm Sandy when two storage tank were damaged by 13-foot waves. The spill contaminated the narrow band of water that separates Staten Island from New Jersey, releasing a strong chemical odor into the air as the diesel rose to the surface and evaporated. Officials said a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/01/arthur-kill-oil-spill-clean-up-diesel-shell_n_2058723.html">majority of the fuel spilled was captured</a> by booms and that it was fortunate diesel spilled rather than crude oil because cleanup and dissipation would be much faster.

  • Mayflower, Arkansas Pipeline Rupture - March 2013

    In late March 2013, ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline ruptured and spilled about 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) of Canadian heavy crude oil into a residential area in Mayflower, Arkansas. Exxon later <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/15/exxonmobil-pegasus-pipeline_n_3082441.html" target="_blank">removed a damaged 52-foot section of the pipeline</a>. The company's cleanup efforts -- which <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/09/rachel-maddow-mayflower-oil-spill-exxon_n_3047331.html" target="_blank">reportedly included using paper towels</a> -- were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/12/colberts-arkansas-oil-spill-exxon_n_3071539.html" target="_blank">criticized in the media</a>. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/10/arkansas-oil-spill-health-_n_3045610.html" target="_blank">Local residents began reporting health issues</a> not long after the spill. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has also expressed his concern for the health of Mayflower residents, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/13/arkansas-oil-spill-health-mayflower-moms_n_3267965.html" target="_blank">reported The Huffington Post's Lynne Peeples</a>. One month after the spill, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/01/missouri-oil-spill-exxon_n_3194177.html" target="_blank">same pipeline leaked one barrel of oil</a> into a residential yard in Missouri.

  • Mississippi River Oil Spill - January 2013 (and February 2012)

    In January 2013, a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/27/mississippi-river-barge-crash_n_2564418.html">barge carrying 668,000 gallons of light crude oil</a> on the Mississippi River crashed into a railroad bridge. An 80,000 gallon tank on the vessel was damaged, spilling oil into the waterway, which prompted officials to close the river for eight miles in either direction. The spill led to a backup of more than 1,000 barges and the accident is still under investigation. Workers <a href="http://www.sfgate.com/news/science/article/Oil-spill-cleanup-on-Mississippi-River-complete-4257729.php">finished clean-up in early February</a>, but the Coast Guard said 7,000 gallons of crude oil are still unaccounted for. This was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/17/mississippi-river-barge-collision_n_1284166.html">the second collision of an oil tanker</a> on the Mississippi in the past year. In February 2012 two barges collided which led to a five-mile wide closure.

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Lost in all the minister's warm and fuzzy rhetoric about increased tanker inspections, tanker safety panels and new navigational aids is the fact that human failures account for up to 80 per cent of the world's oil spills. Underscoring the fact there is no accounting for human error, B.C.'s largest oil spill response vessel ran aground en route to Oliver's news conference last month.

The federal government's public relations exercise does, however, speak to timing. It occurs before the conclusion of the federal review process for Northern Gateway, immediately precedes the 24th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster and coincides with the launch of a provincial election in which pipelines and oil tankers are certain to figure prominently in the outcome of the campaign.

Oliver's announcement is viewed by many as nothing more than empty pandering to the legitimate concerns of British Columbians as the phrase "world-class oil spill response and prevention" is a meaningless platitude. There is no such thing as world-class oil spill response and prevention. The existing yardstick is wholly inadequate as estimates of open-water recovery by mechanical equipment recover only 10 to 15 per cent of the oil from a marine spill at best.

As we have learned from previous spills, no response is possible in rough weather, high seas and dangerous conditions. Importantly, these conditions often precede, or follow, oil spills. Pumping and skimming recovery options are impossible in over one knot of tide or in waves over two to three metres. In rough conditions or offshore spills, response is limited to the use of dispersants, as containment is not an option. Dispersants have proven to be largely unsuccessful on water-in-oil emulsions and on oil that has weathered, and will not likely be successful on bitumen. Furthermore, reliable knowledge regarding the extent of dispersant toxicity is lacking.

With grossly overstated oil spill response capabilities revealed after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, it was evident that improvements to oil spill technology have been negligible. Responders in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill indicated that cleanup technology was no further ahead than in the 15 years previous. Responders in the Deepwater Horizon spill claimed that cleanup technologies were essentially the same as in the Exxon Valdez spill. Thus, despite some minor improvements, oil spill recovery remains largely unchanged in the last 35 years. Importantly, the spill response in these situations was nothing like what had been promised by the oil companies.

The Canadian coast guard has also identified uncertainty around the effectiveness of spill recovery with the products that Enbridge plans to transport. In its submission to the joint review panel assessing Northern Gateway, the coast guard stated it was "not aware of a scientific consensus regarding how these products will behave once introduced into the marine environment or the effects over time of the products being in the water. The Canadian coast guard therefore is uncertain whether or not traditional oil spill recovery methods would be effective."

The coast guard's fear that bitumen could submerge or sink has recently been reinforced by top Canadian and U.S. chemical scientists. But this would not be the only impact of a diluted bitumen spill. If a slick hits the water, it would immediately release dangerous components that are acutely toxic to fish and animals. Currently, no technology can recover those volatile diluents. The bottom line on the B.C. coast, as has been shown elsewhere, is that having the ability to respond does not necessarily translate into effective cleanup of an oil spill.

This article was co-authored by biologist Misty MacDuffee, wild salmon program director for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

A version of this article previously ran in the Toronto Star.

 

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