The recent choice by the federal government to respond to B.C. oil spills from Quebec is “not realistic” and will make it much harder to contain a spill here.
These warnings come from internal memos by B.C. Environment Ministry emergency response officers written to each other in April and May, which were obtained by the Courier under Freedom of Information legislation.
As a result of sweeping cuts in the last federal budget, Environment Canada said that its regional oil-spill response offices in Vancouver and other cities will be closed and consolidated in Quebec. Its response to coastal oil spills will be handled from Montreal.
B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake told the legislature in April that he was still gathering information from Ottawa on the changes. B.C. is facing two possible pipeline projects, and the potential rise of oil tankers in Vancouver’s harbour from roughly 70 to 360 vessels a year. “Not a good day,” wrote local officers in the B.C. Environmental Emergency Program on the cutbacks. “Affects Vancouver heavily. Looks like heavier dependence on the province... Response activities cannot be managed remotely. Preparation and accumulation of local knowledge are vital to a cohesive and coordinated response to emergencies.”
Graham Knox, the program’s manager in Victoria, wrote in a memo that: “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... Trying to provide the current level of service from Montreal is not realistic. 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.”
Environment Canada spokesperson Mark Johnson told the Courier that his ministry is only rarely the lead agency in responding to an environmental emergency. If a spill involved the marine environment, the Canadian Coast Guard would be the lead agency, while a response to a spill involving a pipeline would be led by the National Energy Board.
The B.C. officers described that setup as unrealistic. “Coast Guard and Transport Canada are to receive increased funding to respond, however, these agencies do not have the required environmental expertise,” one wrote. (The Department of Fisheries said the recent closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station will not impair oil spill response because a lifeboat station was never a “primary responder” in such events.)
Furthermore, the B.C authors added, “A reality that hinders west-coast up-front capacity for response to spills is the lack of commercial vessels that could be directed for spill response use... There are no vessels that are designated and/or in a position to be acquired for spill response on the west coast.”
Yet Johnson countered that improvements are coming. “To further enhance safety for shipping on both our east and west coasts, Budget 2012 provides $35.7 million over two years to support responsible energy development.”
This includes new regulations to strengthen the inspection requirements for tankers, better navigation aids such as updated charts for shipping routes, and a review of handling processes for oil products by an independent international panel of tanker safety experts.
Johnson also pledged federal research to improve scientific knowledge of marine pollution risks and to manage the effects on marine resources, habitats and users in case of an incident.
Knox lamented Ottawa’s firing of the internationally respected Canadian oil spill expert Kenneth Lee and the elimination of his research centre in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
“This will limit resource managers access to critical scientific expertise when making response decisions in the future,” he wrote. “Oil spill expertise is eroding.”