What We May Never Know About Vancouver’s English Bay Oil Spill

Late Saturday afternoon, Transport Canada officially cleared the Marathassa to leave Canadian waters. As it slowly moves out of the Salish Sea, the bulk carrier leaves angry mayors, a combative coast guard, a distrustful public and many, many questions in its wake.

Even U.S. authorities are anxiously looking north wondering if Canada knows anything about marine oil spill response. 

What we know about this spill is important, but there’s a lot more we don’t know, and might never know, about what happened in English Bay.

We Don't Know the Total Volume of Fuel Spilled, and Maybe Never Will 

In his first press conference after the April 8th spill, Commander Roger Girouard of the Canadian Coast Guard stated that the volume of the spill was 2,700 litres, or approximately 17 barrels of bunker C fuel. He reiterated this point several times at media appearances and press conferences in the weeks following the spill. Federal Industry Minister James Moore echoed his comments.

Vancouver City Manager Penny Ballem disagrees. In her presentation to Vancouver City Council after the spill, she quoted officials saying that figure is incorrect and the real volume is likely in the range of 3,000 – 5,000 litres spilled.

Similarly, there’s the reality that even the most successful oil spill cleanup efforts only recover a small portion of the oil. In 2010, Gerald Graham, president of Worldocean Consulting, a marine oil spill prevention and response planning firm based in British Columbia, told LiveScience.com that recovering between 10 and 15 per cent of conventional oil spilled in seawater is a ‘best case’ scenario.

Except bunker C fuel — the product spilled in English Bay — is not conventional: it is denser, more viscous and heavier than conventional crude oil. Unlike conventional crude oil, bunker C fuel is not certain to float on water surfaces, nor does it weather and dissolve as easily. On average only five to 10 per cent of the bunker C fuel will evaporate in the first 24 hours after a spill. Instead it breaks into tarballs and settles lower in the water column, sometimes as far down as one to three metres below the surface.

On April 9, Commander Girouard reported that cleanup crews had recovered approximately 1,400 litres of the oil spilled. A few days later, a statement from Coast Guard Commissioner Jody Thomas stated that cleanup crews recovered 80 per cent of fuel spilled within 36 hours after the spill.

If these figures are correct, then without counting the oil which washed up on Vancouver and West Vancouver beaches or the large ‘bathtub ring’ of bunker fuel oil encircling the Marathassa, the Coast Guard should have recovered approximately 2,200 litres of spilled oil in the first 36 hours (based on lower spill estimates). This is definitely possible, but extremely unlikely given past precedent of what constitutes a ‘best case’ cleanup.

But if total spill volumes are incorrect — as City Manager Ballem and others suggest — there is a lot of oil still unaccounted for.

It is worth noting that in the first 24 hours after the spill, oil traveled 12 kilometres to foul at least 10 beaches in Vancouver, West Vancouver and North Vancouver.

Would an Operational Kits Coast Guard Station Have Helped? Who Knows

In 2013, the federal government closed the Kitsilano Coast Guard station, consolidating operations with the Coast Guard Station in Delta, B.C. Both the City of Vancouver and the province of B.C. publicly objected to the closure, citing its importance in oil spill and disaster response efforts.

“The Kitsilano Coast Guard base has been one the most important public safety resources in and around the City of Vancouver, responding to over 300 calls each year. Vancouver is one of the busiest harbours in North America and has depended on robust search and rescue services that are professionally-trained and fully-resourced by the federal government. In the event of major freighter, cruise ship, or aviation emergency, we remain very concerned that the Kitsilano closure will put many additional lives in danger.” – Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson

Both Commander Girouard and Federal Industry Minister James Moore stated they believe the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station being open would have made no difference in the cleanup of this spill. Speaking to the media on April 12, Girouard said the station was never manned with environmental response experts, and would not have been called on in this scenario. James Moore echoed his comments.

According to Commander Girouard, the Kitsilano Coast Guard station had less than 100 metres of oil-absorbing booms, and that they were likely too old to be useful.

Retired Coast Guard Captain Tony Toxopeus, who served at the base, disagrees. So does Mike Cotter, General Manager of the Jericho Sailing Centre, which is located next door to the shuttered station. In an interview with CKNW’s Shane Woodford, Captain Toxopeus confirmed that the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station had two ships (a pollution response vehicle and an Osprey cutter), along with oil spill response equipment and staff trained in pollution response.

At the same time, an operational Kitsilano Coast Guard Station would have greatly reduced the response time for the spill.

As it stands, it took the Coast Guard more than three hours from the time the spill was reported to send a ship to investigate, a further four hours to set up an absorbent boom and a total 12 hours to completely encircle the Marathassa in a containment boom. In an open letter to Minister Moore, Mr. Cotter said:

“Had the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station remained open, the Osprey could have been on scene within 10 minutes in direct contact with the boater who originally reported the spill just after 5 pm on April 8. Her crew would’ve assessed the scene (the boater says he could tell the fuel was coming from the aft section of the source ship) and activated the PRV crew who would’ve been on scene and commenced spill containment within an hour of the report.”

Late last week, the federal government announced that it would also be closing the Vancouver office for its Marine Communications and Traffic Services. Now everything from marine safety communications co-ordination with rescue resources, vessel traffic services and waterway management, broadcast weather and sail plan services for the entire south coast and most of Vancouver Island will be managed out of the Victoria office.

As the Globe and Mail recently reported, officials in Washington State have serious doubts about the Canadian government's ability to address oil spills in the Puget Sound. The Washington Department of Ecology told the state's Governor that "B.C. lacks authority over marine waters, and their federal regime is probably a couple decades behind the system currently in place in Washington State."

A U.S. maritime lawyer also said if the U.S. Coast Guard scored an eight or nine on a worldwide 10-point spill response scale, Canada would score a one or two. 

We Don’t Know Who is Responsible for Monitoring Burrard Inlet for Long-term Spill Impacts

To be clear, the Burrard Inlet and the Salish sea have not been pristine waterways for a long time. E.coli contamination regularly closes local beaches to swimming in the summer, and the waterway is a working port. All of that considered, Vancouver beaches attract millions of people every year, and many people fish its waters for recreation or subsistence.

On April 15, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans banned fishing for shellfish and groundfish in Burrard Inlet, citing concerns about the Marathassa spill. DFO calls the closure a precautionary measure, and gives no indication of when the fisheries may reopen.

The closure makes sense, of course. While the Marathassa spill was minor,  toxins from bunker C fuel can stay in the water for a very long time. A study done by U.S. Department of Fisheries scientists on a 2007 bunker C fuel spill in San Francisco harbour found the spill had decimated local herring stocks and left surviving fish with extensive birth defects and short life spans. This persisted for at least three years after the spill.

But Vancouver’s waters are different. According to Dr. Peter Ross, director of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Pollution Research Program, there’s no baseline data for English Bay’s waters, nor is there a cohesive long-term monitoring program. Both of these deficiencies make it hard to measure long term impacts.

Since coastal waters fall under the purview of the federal government, it should be the responsibility of the DFO to monitor long-term impacts. But millions of dollars in cuts by the federal government have decimated DFO budgets, closing programs and leaving at least 50 scientists out of work. This included Dr. Ross, who used to run a marine toxicology program through DFO. It no longer exists.

The Vancouver Aquarium, the City of Vancouver and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have all collected water samples independently following the spill. Unfortunately, as Dr. Ross says, "There is no official clarity around who is to monitor the effects of a spill."

WWKMD? We Don’t Know What Kinder Morgan Would Do Differently

For all the opacity of the government response, one thing is crystal clear after the Marathassa spill: we could, and must, do better by these waters. As the National Energy Board considers approval of the Kinder Morgan TransMountain tanker and pipeline expansion, both parties could be learning from the Marathassa response and ensuring that future spill preparedness and response is truly ‘world-class.' But, as always, there’s a problem.

Namely, that Kinder Morgan refuses to publicly reveal any of its oil spill cleanup plans for Burrard Inlet — even though the company owns 50.9 per cent of Western Canada Marine Response Company, the lead party responsible for cleanup operations on the Marathassa spill and the primary subcontractor for any future oil spills on the B.C. south coast.

This leaves all levels of government in the dark about what might happen if the new twinned Kinder Morgan pipeline ruptures again (as it did in 2007), or one of the hundreds of new Aframax-sized tankers (40,000 tonnes larger than the Marathassa bulk carrier) leaks diluted bitumen into English Bay.

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