05/19/2015 03:55 EDT | Updated 05/19/2016 05:59 EDT

Vancouver oil spill risk heightened due to refuelling changes, expert says

A Vancouver researcher is raising concerns about the risk of ship-to-ship refuelling in English Bay following a bunker fuel spill in the area last month.

In 2013, rules around safe bunkering practices changed so that, among other amendments, 275 metre-long ships could refuel in the water off English Bay.The process involves transferring fuel from a barge through a hose to the ship. 

Risk assessment expert and former KPMG partner Eoin Finn says allowing bunkering in the open water raises the risk of a spill. The large vessels could carry up to 3,500 tonnes of bunker fuel, oil that is similar to what was spilled into English Bay last month by the MV Marathassa, he said. 

"The risk of the separation of that hose connection, the risk of the communication between two ships as to when the tank is full and to stop pumping, and generally, the risk of other accidents and malfunctions, equipment hazards, as well, while all that is going on is much greater with an at-sea refilling than with shore-side refuelling," Finn told The Early Edition's Rick Cluff.

Finn will be speaking on the issue in Vancouver on Tuesday night.

More refuelling options needed 

Port Metro Vancouver says ship-to-ship refuelling has always been allowed in two places along Burrard Inlet — east of the Second Narrows, or in the inner harbour between the First Narrows and Second Narrows.

Bunkering alongside a dock also happens at those two locations, and on the Fraser River. Refuelling is not allowed at Roberts Bank.

The decision to allow ship-to-ship refuelling in English Bay was made to allow for "better management of vessel traffic in the inner harbour," said the port authority.

"Inner harbour anchorages sufficient to allow larger vessels to bunker are limited to two," it said in a written statement.

"As bunkering of vessels is not permitted at Roberts Bank, this amendment was necessary to provide an option for these larger vessels to bunker outside of the inner harbour if necessary."

It also said strict safety procedures must be followed before bunkering can occur in English Bay. For example, an attending tug must also remain on site during the entire operation.

LNG project a factor says Finn

Finn believes the change was brought in because the proposed Woodfibre LNG plant in Squamish means large LNG tankers on their way back to Asia would need to refuel in the English Bay area. 

However, Jennifer Siddon with Woodfibre LNG says the company has no intention of having LNG tankers bunker at English Bay because the vessels are duel-fuelled and predominantly run on methane gas.

"There are no plans to do any bunkering in English Bay or Howe Sound associated with the Woodfibre LNG project," she said.  

There typically would be bunker fuel on board as a back-up fuel, but Siddon says the chances of the tankers needing to top up while in Canadian waters is "highly unlikely."

In the event that the vessels need to rely on bunker fuel, there would be enough on board to last several weeks of travel, she said. 

Port Metro Vancouver says LNG tankers were not considered in the regulation change. 

Ioin Finn's talk "LNG, Bunker Oil and English Bay" will take place 7 p.m. PT, Tuesday at the Jericho Sailing Centre in Vancouver.

To hear the full story, listen to the audio labelled: Vancouver researcher raises concerns about English Bay spill risks