The spill of the toxic material is raising questions about a slow emergency response and lack of notification to both city officials and the public at a time when tanker traffic through Vancouver waters is expected to increase.
An emergency response team was called in Wednesday night to deal with the oil slick on the bay that is surrounded by apartments, businesses and touches on the city's jewel, Stanley Park.
The substance was originally said to be bunker fuel, but later Thursday officials said they couldn't identify the oily, black material.
The coast guard's Capt. Roger Girouard said the worst-case scenario would be that it is bunker fuel or raw crude. Samples have been sent to a laboratory for testing.
Girouard said at a news conference that 1,400 litres of the substance had already been skimmed from the water by crews that worked overnight. The spill was contained as of Thursday afternoon, he said.
He said the rough estimate was that 3,000 litres had spilled into the water, which he called "not a massive spill by spill standards, but certainly one that got our attention."
A red and black ship named Marathassa was surrounded by an orange oil-absorbing boom early Thursday morning. Several ships with special equipment were seen cleaning up fuel near the vessel.
Girouard said while the spill is clearly surrounding the brand-new foreign cargo ship, the crew has denied anything was coming from the grain vessel. Transport Canada is now investigating.
"I can't definitively say that it came from that vessel, what I do know is when we boomed it, there was no more emergent oil," he said.
He said the company has been "co-operative, but in a guarded fashion." The ship's owners could not immediately be reached for comment.
Vancouver city officials said they were not notified until 6 a.m. Thursday morning about the spill. Port Metro Vancouver and coast guard first received reports late Wednesday afternoon.
"This is obviously something that no one in Vancouver ever wants to see — this kind of contamination of our beaches and our seawaters," said councillor Geoff Meggs at a news conference.
"We will want to find out more about the gap between the spill itself and the notification of our city resources."
Girouard said the coast guard expected the port or the province to contact the city Wednesday night.
"Certainly it was not our intent to leave the city in the blind, so I'm happy to review that and re-do the Rolodex around some of these," he said.
Management of the spill is the responsibility of the federal government through the Canadian Coast Guard, the port and a contracted company called the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation.
Girouard rebuffed questions about the speed of the emergency response, saying that crews installed the oil-absorbing boom around the ship within six hours.
"It's not always immediate. You smell smoke in your house and first you don't believe it and then you go and look and now it's really something," he said.
On Thursday afternoon, glossy water coated in a film of pollution lapped onto the shores of English Bay and Stanley Park's Second Beach. The city called the substance toxic and warned residents stay out of the water and avoid the high-tied line.
Spencer Chandra Herbert, environment critic for the Opposition New Democrats, said the spill raises concerns about Kinder Morgan's proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which would increase tanker traffic.
"Kinder Morgan wants to put oil tankers with diluted bitumen here which could likely sink into our water," he said.
The Vancouver Aquarium said in a news release that it had deployed its rapid response team to ensure the protection of any fish, seabirds and marine mammals that may be put at risk from the toxic spill.
— With files from Justin Smallbridge and Cara McKenna
Also on HuffPost