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New Spill Response Study Finds Tanker Owners Not Financially Responsible for Damage Caused By Spills

A new independent report has revealed that there's nothing on the books in Canada to ensure the owners of tankers that spill oil on the west coast will be held financially accountable for damage to communities and individuals.

The West Coast Spill Response Study, released late last week by the Province of British Columbia, outlines the major gaps in both federal and provincial oil spill response plans, most notably the hole where legislation requiring polluters to pay should be.

The Ministry of Environment says the report “lays the foundation for building a world-class marine spill response and preparedness system.” But if this is what the foundation looks like, there’s a long way to go before the house is complete. The report reveals that tanker companies are not legally responsible for compensating individuals or communities affected by long-term environmental damage, such as that caused by oil spills off the BC coast. The report further states that there are no regulations in place to establish environmental impact or determine how compensation should be given, and while the BC government has the authority to restore damaged coastline habitats, there’s currently no funding mechanism in place to do so.

The BC Liberals commissioned Nuka Research to conduct a three-phase investigation of the policies and regulations currently in place governing marine oil spill response at both levels of government, as well as lay out industry best practices to determine how best to address gaps.
A world-class marine spill response system is one of five conditions the BC Liberals have laid out for the Harper government, demanding they be met before the province will give its consent to allow the Northern Gateway Pipeline and heavy oil on the west coast.

“We stand by this condition, which is why we contracted Nuka Research, an international expert in the field, to conduct this comprehensive study,” said BC Environment Minister Mary Polak via email.

She said the BC Liberals are pleased with some of the steps the federal government has made toward a better prevention and response system, namely the creation of a federal tanker safety expert panel announced in March that will also review existing safety measures and recommend improvements.

But, she said, ultimately BC will have to wait and see what those improvements are before determining whether conditions have been met.

“We believe the current federal response standards need to be strengthened given the increase in both the number and size of tankers along our coast,” she said. “If an oil spill occurs, it’s important to know that in all cases, the spiller is responsible for clean-up and monitoring. The role of provincial and federal agencies is to oversee the response.”

Several major players in the Canadian oil export industry, including Kinder Morgan and Canadian Natural Resources, Ltd, declined to comment on the report.

The report also points out a number of other oversights and omissions concerning spill prevention, mainly in the form of tanker safety. The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) is mandated to inspect all foreign ships the first time they enter Canadian ports and then yearly thereafter. In 2010, the most recent year for which information is available, the CCG inspected 1,082 ships and found deficiencies in 40 percent of them. Of those ships, less than five percent were detained.
In March of this year, the federal government announced its commitment to increasing the number of vessels inspected each year, however, the report states that this commitment only means that Canada will work harder to meet its own requirements for inspecting all ships upon their first visit to Canada and yearly thereafter, and not a net increase in the number of ships inspected.

There is a voluntary tanker exclusion zone that runs from Valdez, Alaska to Puget Sound, Washington, that keeps laden oil tankers a minimum of 50 nautical miles offshore. But the zone doesn’t apply to tankers whose destination is within those bounds, such as the BC ports. And while there are escort tug requirements for several locations in southern BC to help with safe navigation through difficult passages, there are no such regulations in northern BC.

Subjectivity is a theme throughout. The report cites multiple references to “reasonable” costs in both federal and provincial regulations, as well as liability limits for tankers of various sizes. The current limit according to the federal Marine Liability Act is $137,973,797. The final bill for clean-up and remediation after Enbridge’s spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010 was just over $1 billion.

Image Credit: Photo by Wendy North via Flickr

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Thanks for being an avid reader of our in-depth journalism, which is read by millions and made possible thanks to more than 4,200 readers just like you.

The Narwhal's growing team is hitting the ground running in 2022 to tell stories about the natural world that go beyond doom-and-gloom headlines — and we need your support.

Our model of independent, non-profit journalism means we can pour resources into doing the kind of environmental reporting you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, from investigations that hold elected officials accountable to deep dives showcasing the real people enacting real climate solutions.

There’s no advertising or paywall on our website (we believe our stories should be free for all to read), which means we count on our readers to give whatever they can afford each month to keep The Narwhal’s lights on.

The amazing thing? Our faith is being rewarded. We hired seven new staff over the past year and won a boatload of awards for our features, our photography and our investigative reporting.

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