Federal Cuts To Blame for Slow Response to English Bay Spill

The woefully slow response to a spill of nearly 3,000 litres of toxic bunker fuel into Vancouver's English Bay last Wednesday is both a tragic reminder of the sad state of protection for fish and water in Canada, and a dramatic indication that oil spill response on Canada's West coast is far from "world-class."

After a sailboater first reported an oily sheen on English Bay around 5 pm on April 8th, it took six hours for emergency responders to establish a boom around the spill. This is the maximum legislated response time for a tier 1 oil spill (150 tonnes or less), according to Transport Canada's standards. It was a further six hours before the City of Vancouver was notified, and another 24 hours until official signage appeared on city beaches warning the public away from the contaminated water. As a result of this dangerously slow pace of action, a comparatively small spill was allowed to reach unprotected beaches and untold numbers of unwitting beachgoers, including groups of children, were allowed to expose themselves to toxic pollutants. This is completely unacceptable anywhere, let alone in one of the busiest harbours on the Western seaboard. How could it happen?

The Kitsilano Coast Guard base was shuttered on February 19th, 2013, a victim of the government's "streamlining" of Canada's emergency marine response brought in with the 2012 budget. The station's 47-foot pollution response vessel, equipped with oil recovery tanks, skimmers, and a boom, is currently sitting up on blocks according to retired Coast Guard commander, Fred Moxey.

“The crew was trained and the ship was ready around the clock for a first attack,” said Moxey. “Had the base been open and the crew on duty, they would have been out into English Bay in a matter of minutes.”

In addition to slashing available resources, the current government has also overseen the amalgamation of coastal and marine response services, pushing capacity away from the Coast Guard and on to private enterprises like Western Canada Marine Response Corp., the contracted company who have been handling much of the official cleanup operation for last week's spill (and whose majority shareholder is Kinder Morgan).

To make matters worse, these sweeping cuts are set to continue this year with the closure of the Vancouver Marine Communications and Transportation Services Centre and the Regional Marine Information Centre, further reducing available resources for responding to marine emergencies.

Unbelievably, these cuts to emergency marine response were justified in the name of 'public safety.'

“The paramountcy of government resources in this area is on public safety and the government is allocating its resources in a way that we believe, based on the advice we have received from the Coast Guard, that is best in terms of public safety,” explained Prime Minister Harper, in response to criticism over his government's move to close the Kitsilano Coast Guard base.

“We’ve made investments here and in other parts of the country precisely in that way, to try and move things away from offices and back offices and to actually having resources on the ground and in the water. That’s what we’re doing and that’s what we think is best for public safety.”

Recently appointed Coast Guard commissioner Judy Thomas, who ironically prefaced her comments by explaining that she monitors Canada's entire Coast Guard operation from her office in Ottawa, also defended the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard base, as well as last week's spill response. She echoed Deputy Commissioner Robert Girouard's statements that having the Kitsilano Base operational would not have made "one iota" of difference to the spill response time.

Moxey, the former commander of the Kitsilano base, takes issue with Thomas and Girouard's assessment. "It was a 24-hour-a-day operation," he said, speaking to the Vancouver Observer. "All the officers and crew at Kitsilano were trained and had responded to oil spills as well as search and rescue. For her to say that is just false and I will sign an affidavit declaring the fact we were and had been called to respond to spills often."

Much fanfare has been made in recent years about Canada's "world-class" spill response in an effort to sell the province on controversial pipeline projects, such as Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain, that would bring an exponential increase in super-tanker traffic to some of the most remote sections of our coastline. When asked whether the Coast Guard has the capacity to handle a major spill off our coast, Moxey's response was less than encouraging.

"You can't remove the possibility of human error. They are in no way prepared for a catastrophe," he said. "It'd be years to clean it up."

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