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Some thoughts on the Vancouver spill

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A friend tagged me on a facebook post of an early picture of the spill, and comments started pouring fast and furious. Furious, indeed, several were – indignant that this should have happened at all, and mad at the authorities for seemingly tolerating it or fumbling the response. (And as usual, there were counterpoints; one person working in the Tar Sands felt compelled to defend the whole industry.)

My first thought was that this is really small spill: about two tonnes of heavy hydrocarbon. (By comparison, a supertanker carries about a qurter million tonnes.) Despite this, several things were obvious:
• The spill spread over much of English Bay, soiling most of the beaches of Vancouver and West Vancouver.
• Even though the spill was detected almost immediately, it took quite a while before a response was put in place.
• There was a fumble in communications, resulting in the public being notified to stay away from the water almost a full day after the start of the spill.
• The response would have been faster if the Kitsilano Coast Guard base had not been closed two years ago.
• There are still questions as to the nature of the material spilled, its fate (for instance, if there was a bitumen fraction, did it sink and where?), and of course its impact.
• There was at least some impact to the biota – people were tweeting pictures of affected ducks.
• The ship is brand new, yet leaked, making one question the idea that newer ship design protects against leaks or accidents.
• For once, the media seemed to be asking the right questions.

Here are a number of links that describe what happened, from the Vancouver Sun, the Tyee (here and here), Vancity Buzz, DeSmogBlog, a petition from LeadNow, a first-hand acount from CBC, a video clip from the Directly Affected folks, among many others.

Saturday evening, the coast guard announced that the spill is now gone from the water: mopped up or evaporated. Fine. But the beaches are still sullied, and we don’t know how much is on the sediment. For that matter, world-class response or not (and this definitely was not), it is never possible to remove all of an oil spill. There are always residuals. In this case, I can only hope that the consequences will be minimal.

But numerous questions remain: what happens next? I see two possible trends. Either some people will say that, after all, the spill was no big deal and the response worked. Or people will become even more weary of the idea of increased numbers of tankers in our waters. But in all events, one salutary outcome is that the risk is now impossible to ignore, and the whole Lower Mainland is talking about the situation.

Among the questions that need to be answered are regulations. Flags of convenience enable ships to dodge a lot of questions. For that matter, trains that carry hazardous materials are still not required to notify municipalities as to the nature of their cargo; in both cases, the municipalities are now the first responders (since senior levels of government have off-loaded their responsabilities to them) but there is no communication mechanisms in place to enable the cities to do their job.

And this happened in a busy harbour, on a nice day, with lots of eyes on the water in the third largest Canadian city. What happens in the event of a large spill in rough waters in the Great Bear wilderness?

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Written by enviropaul

April 11, 2015 at 9:30 pm

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