Activists are less than shocked by B.C. Ministry of Environment internal memos warning that the province is poorly equipped to deal with oil spills.
“It’s not a surprise,” said Eoin Madden, climate change campaigner for the Wilderness Committee. “Our alarms started to ring when they closed the marine traffic control room in Vancouver. That combined with the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard Base sent the wrong message at a time when the federal government was trying to tell us that we were going to be okay.”
In a separate interview, Ben West, tar sands campaign director for Forest Ethics Advocacy, echoed Madden’s words.
“It’s not a huge surprise,” West said. “We know that we’re unprepared to deal with an oil spill.”
On August 25, the Canadian Press published excerpts from notes written by bureaucrats within the environment ministry that were obtained through freedom of information laws. Using frank language, the documents express a range of concerns about the province’s capacity to manage an oil spill given the level of existing tanker traffic off B.C.’s coast.
“Even a moderately-sized spill would overwhelm the province's ability to respond and could result in a significant liability for government,” one documents states. “The industry requirements, established by Transport Canada, are perceived as being insufficient in both scope and scale.”
A specific event highlighted in the memos as potentially problematic is the May 2012 closure of Environment Canada regional spill response offices in Vancouver.
“As a result, Environment Canada will have little or no surge capacity in the event of a major spill to bring in responders from across the country,” wrote Graham Knox, an employee of the province presently listed as a manager with its environmental emergencies program. “Current EC staff have found it challenging to respond to spills outside of their base in Vancouver, and a move to Montreal will certainly increase these challenges many-fold.”
Officials also voiced concerns over increases in tanker traffic expected in provincial waters.
If approved, the proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will twin an existing pipeline running from Edmonton to Burnaby, upping capacity for Alberta heavy crude from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000. It's estimated that will result in more than 360 additional tankers per year moving oil through Vancouver waters.
The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline is proposed to run over half a million barrels of diluted bitumen per day from Albert to a port at Kitimat. That would result in an additional 200 tankers per year navigating heavy crude oil through coastal channels.
“The Ministry of Environment, as the ministry responsible for preparedness, prevention, response and recovery for spills, is not adequately staffed and resourced to meet the existing and emerging expectations to address spills,” reads a briefing note prepared for then-incoming environmental minister Mary Polak.
On March 19, 2013, Transport Canada issued a media release listing eight points the government maintains will “strengthen Canada’s tanker safety system.” The Conservative government said it is also tabling a motion in Parliament that will amend and strengthen the Canada Shipping Act of 2001.
Madden said that such measures ring disingenuous, given that they came as the Conservatives cut back existing safety measures.
“They’ve gutted support for the very people who were supposed to keep us safe,” he said. “They promised strong regulations on oil and gas activity but, of course, they never mentioned that simultaneously, they were reducing their support for the marine traffic control room in Vancouver.”
Madden said that it’s encouraging to read that provincial bureaucrats are raising concerns with their superiors. “The logical next step,” he continued, “is a clear declaration from the government, from the minister herself, Mary Polak, to say that this is not good enough.”
West emphasized that there should be a moratorium on tanker traffic in B.C. waters.
“No matter what the provincial or federal government does, the people of British Columbia are not going to be convinced that any safety measures are going to prepare us for increases in traffic,” he said. “So far, we’ve been pretty lucky that there hasn’t been a major incident, especially as we’ve moved to more dangerous forms of oil, like diluted bitumen from the tar sands. That has happened without anybody really noticing.”