04/11/2015 12:30 EDT | Updated 06/13/2015 08:59 EDT

Legally, oil spill response appropriate: maritime lawyer

There have been a lot of questions about the official response to Wednesday's oil spill and a legal expert says that legally, the response unfolded exactly as it should have. 

On the Coast host Stephen Quinn spoke to Shelley Chapelski, a partner at Bull Housser, who specializes in maritime law. 

Legally, who is in charge?

There are two organizations: Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard. Transport Canada organizes the overall framework of oil spill response, but when there is an incident it is the Canadian Coast Guard.

What role does the province and the city play?

It's a matter of shipping and navigation, which under the Canadian constitution, falls within the federal jurisdiction. Other than being claimants if they suffer damages per se, the city and province do not have a direct role. 

Even though the bunker fuel is washing up on the beaches of a couple of municipalities?

The ship has the ultimate responsibility for paying for all claims and paying for all of the cleanup and will probably face a fine.

Are there any circumstances under which the city of Vancouver could hold upper levels of government responsible for damage to its shoreline?

The city would have to show that the federal government was responsible for having caused the damage in the first instance. The cleanup organization, the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, has to abide by time response guidelines established by Transport Canada in consultation with provincial governments and other organizations. 

The WCMRC maintains an incredible amount of equipment, vessels; they have a core full-time staff and up to 500 volunteers available to respond to a spill. Transport Canada established certain response deadlines which they are supposed to meet, and that is six hours for a spill this size. They can identify the resources they need, marshal the resources and volunteers, get the equipment on the water to respond.

When a spill does occur, how does the investigation into what happened unfold?

Coast Guard will look into what occurred. Transport Canada, which is responsible for ship safety and the seaworthiness of the ship will look into it.  The Transportation Safety Board will also conduct an investigation if the spill is significant enough and there may be safety lessons to learn.

If a ship denies responsibility, what happens?

In this case, the ship did not immediately take responsibility, but subsequently the ship owner publicly acknowledged that the bunker fuel came from its vessel..... In circumstances when no one takes responsibility, investigations will be undertaken by the Coast Guard and Transport Canada. In situations where there may be multiple vessels in a marina that may be the source, they'll take samples of the fuel in the water and the fuel in the vessels to see if they can match it. Often times they can find where the fuel is coming from the vessel.
Ultimately, if it cannot be proven which vessel is responsible for the pollution, Canadians can rely on the Ship-source Oil Pollution fund to indemnify them for any cleanup costs

Is compensation complicated if it is a foreign vessel?

Not at all. In order to enter Canadian waters, vessels need to carry certificates of financial responsibility to deal with these types of circumstances and if the government had any concern about the ship's commitment to pay costs, they can demand security before the vessel leaves port.

Could Canadian maritime law be improved to prevent incidents like this from happening again?

International shipping is an integral part of our economy. Shipping cannot be conducted without some degree of risk. All we can do as Canadians is minimize the risk and ensure that when the risks turn into realities, there is a response prepared and in position to minimize the impact of the incident.That is exactly what happened in this particular case. Relatively speaking, it's a non-event.

To listen to the full interview, listen to the audio labelled Maritime Lawyer on Vancouver oil spill