Screen Shot 2019-08-02 at 5.32.35 PM

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

New title

You’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article. That makes you some serious Narwhal material.

And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).

As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired five journalists over the past year.

Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 3,500 members

The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.

We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.

If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.

The lessons for British Columbia in Alaska’s epic Bristol Bay sockeye run

Every summer, biologist Daniel Schindler walks hundreds of kilometers up and down the Wood River in Alaska, counting red and green sockeye salmon homing to...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Help power our ad-free, non‑profit journalism
The Narwhal has arrived in Ontario!

Guess what? We just launched an Ontario bureau. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.