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English Bay oil spill response is instructive

May 14, 2015

If you ever wondered what the federal government really meant by “World Class” oil spill response, now you know. The English Bay spill on April 8 proved out a lot of the criticisms that Living Oceans has been making about spill preparedness in B.C., yet to listen to federal government pronouncements, you’d think the response was perfection itself. This, then, is a world class spill response.

The Coast Guard has spared no effort to praise its own efforts and those of Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, the oil-company owned outfit contracted to pick up the oil. Commissioner Jody Thomas in “enormously pleased”; Assistant Commissioner Roger Girouard says the response was by the book and advised the CBC on April 11 that only about six litres of oil remained in English Bay. Girouard maintained that 80 percent of the oil had been cleaned up by skimmers working the water’s surface. "You don't contain 80 percent of a spill inside 36 hours and call that inadequate," he said. "I will not accept that definition of my team."

On the response time, Commissioner Thomas was very specific: "Within 25 minutes of notification, we were on the water. And with [Western Canada Marine Response Corporation], we worked through the night to skim the water and boom the ship."

Map of English Bay oil spill

The only statement above that is entirely correct and complete is that the response was by the book, which is to say that the WCMRC was on the scene with recovery equipment within the time prescribed by Transport Canada. From the handbook: “[I]n Port Metro Vancouver it is required that WCMRC maintain a dedicated package of equipment that is capable of responding to a 150 tonne spill within 6 hours.” The fact that they didn’t actually deploy their booms until sometime between midnight and 2:00 a.m. takes them a little outside that response time. They said that they couldn’t figure out where the oil was coming from.

Dr. Peter Ross of the Vancouver Aquarium and his assistant cleaning up oily sludge on Sunset Beach in English Bay. Photo: John Preissl

Clearly, a textbook spill response will result in the oiling of Vancouver’s beaches, as it has here. This was said to be a two-tonne spill (2,700 litres); Kinder Morgan’s idea of a “credible worst case” spill is 10,000 tonnes, just to put the question of beach oiling in perspective.

But what about the size of the spill and the “80 percent cleanup”? By April 13, the Coast Guard was admitting that the spill size estimate they were using was a conservative estimate made by flying over the area to determine the spill’s visible dimensions and multiplying that by estimated spill thickness. That sounds quite reasonable, unless you knew from the time of the initial report at 5:05 p.m. on Wednesday that much of the oil was already underwater and therefore invisible from the air.

Rob O’Dea, a sailor who reported the spill, said, “… it was an oil slick about half a kilometre long and 250 metres wide. The surface was covered with a blue sheen and just beneath the surface there were globules of oil by the thousands per square metre. They were within the top few inches of the water. Some were the size of a pea, many were the size of a fist.”

An oiled bufflehead iin English Bay. Photo: John Preissl

And where was it coming from? Rob apparently had no difficulty figuring that out: “When we passed by the stern of the offending freighter there were larger, sticky globs of black goo a meter long and as thick as your arm. Oil was everywhere at and below the surface. The crew of the ship were madly trying to load 50 gallon drums from a small boat onto the ship while at the same time they were dropping small pails over the side of the ship and hauling up water. It was a keystone cops kind of scene and the Port Metro boat passed by in close proximity but did not intervene.” (That Port Metro boat is apparently the one that “we” had on the water “within 25 minutes”; Rob says it showed up about 6:00 p.m. WCMRC wasn’t there at 8:00 p.m. when he decided to go in.)

Unconfined oil will spread to a thickness of about 0.4 mm. Sticky globs of black goo a metre long and as thick as your arm don’t. Yet there was Girouard, insisting that “physics tells us that it will float” (a direct quote, by the way, from one of Enbridge’s experts at the hearings on the Northern Gateway Pipeline hearings) and reporting on the reductions in surface oil as if it were all that required response.

The truth is that nobody will ever accurately estimate how much oil spilled, given that within a very short time after the spill, so much of it submerged beneath the water’s surface. We may be finding tarballs from this spill washing ashore for years to come.

Oil on the Stanley Park seawall. Photo: John Preissl

As recently as two years ago, the Coast Guard had a dedicated spill response vessel and a trained crew at the [former] Kitsilano base who, according to retired Coast Guard Capt. Tony Toxopeus, could have responded within an hour and perhaps contained the surface spill before it hit the beaches. “They’re downplaying it to such a degree it’s shameful, it’s terrible, it’s dishonest,” Toxopeus said.

“There was a 40-foot boat that was purpose built for oil pollution response,” said Toxopeus, adding the base also had 150 metres of Kepner self-inflating boom, 150 metres of 24-inch fence boom, 30 metres of oil absorbent boom, a skimmer and absorbent pads. “That was probably the best equipped station on the B.C. coast.”

Even that equipment would have been inadequate to respond to submerged oil, which could pass under the floating booms and travel with the current. Note that this was bunker C oil, carried by nearly every vessel in the Port. It’s much like the bitumen that Kinder Morgan wants to ship—a heavy oil, given to forming dense, sticky mats and globs, rather than just spreading on the surface.

Almost two weeks after the spill, the MV Marathassa with a poorly placed containment boom takes on a cargo of wheat. Photo: John Preissl

In summary, “World Class” oil spill response apparently means critically disabling the ability of the Coast Guard to respond to spills in the harbour of the B.C. city most liable to experience an oil spill and denying that you did so; handing the task over to a corporation owned by the oil companies themselves; and legislating response times that are clearly inadequate to protect the Greenest City from beach oiling. Add in the power of the federal government’s communications machine to spin the facts—80 percent recovery, 25 minutes to have “a boat in the water” and “physics tells us it will float”—and repeat ad nauseum that you’re doing an excellent job.

We don’t buy it and judging by the public response, neither do most people in Vancouver.

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