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Is B.C. Prepared for An Oil Spill? The Short Answer: No.

British Columbians must learn from mistakes made following the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon oil spills and prepare oil spill community response plans, renowned U.S. marine toxicologist Riki Ott is warning.

Transport Canada, along with the industry-funded Western Canada Marine Response Corporation and the Canadian Coast Guard are in charge of oil spill response on the west coast, but recent incidents like the bunker fuel leak in English Bay show a lack of communication and spotty response can leave local governments and communities on the sidelines.

Speaking at a community workshop in Victoria organized by Georgia Strait Alliance and Living Oceans Society, Ott said the risk of an oil spill off the B.C. coast increases as more tankers and other vessels ply the crowded waters. Communities must be ready to deal with a disaster, she said.

“Oil doesn’t spill on federal and provincial land. It spills in someone’s backyard,” Ott said, warning that people also need to be educated about health hazards that come from breathing oil-laden air, diseases suffered by clean-up crews absorbing toxic chemicals through their skin and the decades-long effects on marine species and wildlife, ranging from mutations to extirpation.

“When it happens, it’s really too late. You have to put all your energy into prevention and it’s really important to have a plan,” she said.

Pipeline company Kinder Morgan has refused to release its full oil spill response plans for the Trans Mountain pipeline in Canada — even though those same plans are publicly available in the U.S. — meaning local communities and emergency responders have little to no information on how to clean up in the event of another oil spill.

An oil spill will disrupt communities and the environment long after the official cleanup is finished, said Ott, pointing to continuing problems in Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez spill occurred in 1989.

“Oil on the beaches just doesn’t go away, it just goes under and every time the tide comes in, it lifts it up so the poison is rippling through the ecosystem,” she said.

Ott, a scientist, author and activist who witnessed the ecological destruction and social chaos after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and then worked in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, shone a spotlight on the resulting chemical illnesses.

Those go far beyond the flu-like symptoms, colloquially known as the “Valdez crud,” and include central nervous system damage, reproductive problems, cancer and liver failure, said Ott, who spent years researching health implications of exposure to heavy crude oil.

In the Gulf of Mexico the situation was made worse by the use of nearly two million gallons of toxic dispersants — used as solvents to break up oil slicks — which make it easier for toxins to be absorbed through the skin, Ott discovered.

“Oil and solvent is worse than oil alone and so much was sprayed it amounted to the sixth largest petro-chemical spill in the U.S,” she said, describing the area around the Gulf of Mexico as a toxic chemical gumbo where it became common to see dead dolphins, fish or shrimp born with no eyes or crabs with dissolving shells.

The lack of human health studies was startling and authorities seemed unaware that the toxic mix was airborne, said Ott, who wants Canadians to arm themselves with information because in February the federal government passed Bill C-22, which allows for the use of the same dispersant — Corexit — in Canada.

It is an alarming decision, especially as efforts are now underway to have the dispersant banned in the U.S., Ott said.

In 2011, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency issued a directive requiring BP to identify a less toxic alternative to dispersants, acknowledging that the chemicals can be carcinogenic and mutagenic.

Incidents such as the ruptured Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline that spewed crude oil over a Burnaby neighbourhood and into the Burrard Inlet in 2007 and this year’s spill of 2,700 litres of bunker fuel into English Bay underline the lack of local planning and minimal information about health risks, Ott said.

Response to the English Bay spill was frustrated by the federal government’s decision to shutter the Kitsilano Coast Guard base, something B.C. Premier Christy Clark, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and the newly elected federal Liberal government have vowed to reverse.

Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau promised to reopen the base as well as reinvest in marine safety and oil spill response capacity in B.C. during the election campaign.

People need to know what products would be used after a spill, who gets to make that decision, where the waste will go, who will be responsible for cleaning oiled wildlife and who will be responsible for collecting carcasses, Ott said.

Canadian plans are based on the “polluter pays” principle, but that can cause problems, she added.

“Do you want the spiller in charge? … You don’t want industry making these calls, you want local government making these calls.”

A recent Georgia Strait Alliance report, “A Voice for Coastal Communities in Marine Oil Spill Preparedness,” echoes those concerns and is calling for the federal government to clarify roles and responsibilities, with an emphasis on ensuring local governments take part in risk assessment, planning and training.

The report also recommends formation of a citizens’ advisory council and additional federal funding to support local governments in preparing oil spill response plans.

“Boaters, beachgoers or local emergency services are often among the first to discover a spill and it is communities that are left with the consequences long after the response teams have gone home,” says the report.

“Yet, when it comes to marine oil spill planning and response in Canada, those who are most directly affected and have the most to lose — coastal residents and the local governments representing them — have ended up on the sidelines.”

The province is preparing plans to create a quicker, more coordinated response to land-based spills, which should be in place by early 2017, and it will also have a marine component, which should address many concerns raised at the workshop, said Graham Knox, director of B.C.’s Environmental Emergency Program.

Image: bunker fuel found on Second Beach by marine scientists Peter Ross of the Vancouver Aquarium

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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