Anne Murray: What we risk when oil spills along B.C.'s coast
By Anne Murray
On March 11, the container ship, Pacific Adventurer, loaded with ammonium nitrate, ran into a cyclone whipping down the coast of Queensland, Australia. The effect was devastating for the beautiful sand beaches of Moreton Island. Thirty-one containers toppled from the deck in the rough seas, gashing the side of the hull as they fell overboard. 270,000 litres of bunker oil spewed into the water, coating 40 kilometres of beaches with thick, black, life-killing slime. The containers fell to the ocean floor, where they remain, a hazard for wildlife and shipping.
Could it happen off Vancouver? Of course it could. The Georgia Strait is a major shipping lane, and is poised to become even busier. The Port of Vancouver’s largest container terminal, Deltaport, is located on ecologically sensitive Roberts Bank, where hundreds of thousands of migrating birds congregate, and orcas and porpoises regularly feed. It is a global Important Bird Area. Strong storms and gales are not uncommon and may become exacerbated by climate change: think of the hurricane force winds that demolished swathes of trees in Stanley Park.
As for oil spills, the tally on our coast is rising. In March 2006, the Queen of the North hit a rock on Gil Island, south of Kitimat, spilling much of her 250,000-litre fuel load as she sank. The same year, a spill in the Squamish Estuary saturated the intertidal. On July 24, 2007, a geyser of oil spewed over vital bird habitat in Burrard Inlet and soaked nearby houses when a contractor accidentally cut the pipeline. In 2007, a fuel truck loaded with 10,000 litres of diesel sank in Robson Bight, critical habitat for orcas and other marine mammals. May 2008 saw two oil spills, in Hecate Strait and on Britannia Beach. Both events soaked the coastline with fuel.
The Pacific Northwest’s biggest spill was from the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska in March 1989. Two thousand kilometres of pristine coast was covered with 41 million litres of heavy crude oil. The effect on wildlife was disastrous: over half a million seabirds, 3,000 sea otters, and 250 bald eagles perished. Billions of salmon eggs and invertebrates were also wiped out, having a lasting cumulative effect right up the food chain. Twenty years on, oil can still be seen choking the rocks and sea life of the beaches.
The risk of oil spills is greatly increased by the amount of traffic. On Canada’s busy east coast, heavy fuel oil has killed thousands of seabirds and contaminated hundreds of kilometres of coastline. Even small spills can cause immense damage if they occur in a wildlife feeding area or on an ecologically sensitive stretch of coast. B.C.’s coastline is an incredible natural treasure, full of immense diversity of life. It should be treated with the care it deserves. Oil spills must be top of mind for our new government.
Anne Murray is a naturalist and author of two books about the B.C. coast: A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay (photographs by David Blevins). They are available from local booksellers and Nature Guides B.C.