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On the front lines of B.C. oil spill surveillance

In 2018 alone, Transport Canada's Pacific aerial surveillance program reported 550 oil spills — yet only two fines were levied. We went up in the sky to learn more about the art of detecting an oil spill

On the day The Narwhal went out on pollution patrol with Transport Canada’s National Aerial Surveillance Program in early June, the morning started in a second-storey office on the outskirts of the Vancouver International Airport in Richmond

The team (two pilots, two surveillance technicians and a manager/senior technician) assemble in a briefing room. The crew pours over the latest weather reports, satellite imagery of real-time shipping traffic and any reports of weekend spills. In this way, each day’s flight plan is a custom creation.

I’m with filmmaker David Lavallee to get a first-hand view of what it’s like on the front lines of marine pollution first response on British Columbia coast.

We are briefed for emergency readiness and board the cherry-red plane — a highly customized former commercial Dash-8 — one of three maritime pollution surveillance planes that Transport Canada employs on the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic coasts under the banner of the National Aerial Surveillance Program.

On the day we fly, an oil slick has been reported in Vancouver’s False Creek, which is the first top of the flight.

The Dash-8 has been heavily modified with radar, specialized cameras and much more — with modified fuel tanks that make a six-hour, return flight to the Alaska border possible.

No spill is visible as we cross False Creek, but as the plane rises over Burrard Inlet, an unreported iridescent slick of suspected hydrocarbon comes into view. The pollution is photographed and analyzed to produce an estimate of the amount of fuel on the surface.

This spill is what senior technologist Owen Rusticus calls a “mystery spill” — there is no obvious source (such as a nearby ship trailing oil), but one possible explanation is that a ship has left its bilge pump on auto, discharging fuel-tainted water into the inlet.

For densely populated areas with heavy shipping traffic, the crew relies largely on sight to detect spills, with the background help of built-in technology that can detect the unique surface effect of oily substances on water.

As we cut across Georgia Strait to scan the shipping lanes off the west coast of Vancouver Island however, the plane rises much higher (20,000 feet is the limit) and relies entirely on sensors for its pollution detection.

Before we rise above the clouds about 65 km off the coast of Tofino, we spot and photograph a group of about nine white Risso’s dolphins, followed by two separate pairs of fin whales — which are photographed and reported to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Pilot Simon Pearce says they typically see “a lot of humpbacks and sometimes sperm whales” closer to shore off Vancouver Island at this time of year, and further offshore, fin and blue whales.

During the nearly five-hour flight, we witness how dedicated and skilled the Transport Canada surveillance crew are. In 2018 alone, the Pacific aerial surveillance program reported 550 spills (between April 1, 2018 and March 31, 2019) — many of them relatively small hydrocarbon spills.

On our flight, the Burrard Inlet spill was estimated to contain fewer than four litres, and a tiny slick near Nanaimo was fewer than 0.5 litres. So what happens to mystery spill reports of small quantities?

Transport Canada spokesman Simon Rivet later tells me the mystery spill information informs Transport Canada’s “overall knowledge of marine oil spills in Canadian waters, including their location, extent, frequency and the total amount of oil spilled.” The data also informs where future patrols will happen.

Despite the Canadian government’s stated “zero tolerance for polluting Canada’s marine environment,” (as per a pamphlet for the surveillance program from Transport Canada in 2011), there were just two “administrative monetary penalties” issued to two vessels for discharging pollutants in the Pacific region last year — both of them for less than $2,000.

With the recent federal approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which could see a seven-fold increase in the number of oil tankers plying the southern B.C. coast, the surveillance work of these little-known eyes-in-the-sky will only become more important.

Video by White Gold Productions

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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