Coast guard union warns oil spills pose greater risk due to cuts

Amid criticism about the Canadian Coast Guard’s response to last week’s fuel spill in English Bay, the union representing coast guard workers says imminent cuts to communication centres on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland could have disastrous consequences for managing future oil spills.

The coast guard, the lead agency for managing a fuel spill, plans to close three of five marine communications centres, including the centre in Ucluelet on April 21, the Vancouver centre on May 6 and the Comox station by next year.

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“That will put delays into the alerting and notification system for pollution incidents,” said Allan Hughes, Comox-based western director of Unifor 2182.

“[The federal government] has cut the coast guard so much that services that have traditionally been provided for generations are no longer going to be there for the public to protect their waters,” he said.

Fred Moxy, former commander of the Kitsilano coast guard station, which closed in 2013, told reporters on Saturday that if the station was still open, the response time would have been 10 minutes as opposed to several hours.

The coast guard plans to consolidate operations in Victoria and Prince Rupert and assistant commissioner Roger Girouard has said the agency is testing new technology that will allow officers to monitor larger areas from fewer centres.

David Anderson, a former federal environment minister who now lives in Victoria, said the resource cuts are a direct contradiction to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assurances that Canada has a world-class marine response system.

“You can’t have a world-class system unless you have personnel on the ground,” Anderson said.

Hughes said the Salish Sea is already the busiest boating area in Canada and oil tanker traffic is set to increase if two oil pipeline projects go ahead.

Kinder Morgan's proposed expansion of its pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby would see tanker traffic through Juan de Fuca Strait go from about five ships a month to an estimated 25 to 34.

The National Energy Board is also considering Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, which would send as many as 250 supertankers a year into the narrow Douglas Channel.

Emma Gilchrist, who runs environment news site Desmog Canada, said it undercuts public confidence when the federal government is aggressively pushing pipeline expansions while at the same time cutting essential coast guard resources.

“It’s a bit nonsensical to be increasing oil tanker traffic so quickly at the same time as actually cutting back your ability to respond.”

Gilchrist said the 2,700 litres of bunker fuel that spilled in English Bay was “quite a minor spill, which has been majorly mishandled.

“It’s kind of a canary in the coal mine situation for what could happen if you have a large spill of diluted bitumen” which is much harder to clean up than the bunker fuel, she said.

On Friday, Premier Christy Clark slammed the federal government’s response to Wednesday’s oil spill, saying the province might do a better job in organizing oil-spill cleanups.

“Somebody needs to do a better job of protecting the coast, and the coast guard has not done it," said Clark.

On Sunday, the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities passed an emergency resolution calling on the provincial government to commission an independent audit on the current state of oil spill response in B.C.

Defending itself against criticism of the oil cleanup response, the Canadian Coast Guard released a detailed timeline on Sunday that outlined the sequence of events.

Coast guard commissioner Jody Thomas said the agency was notified by a recreation boater of a slick around bulk grain carrier Marathassa at 5:10 p.m. Wednesday. Within four minutes, the coast guard notified emergency management partners, which are tasked with informing local authorities. including municipal governments and First Nations.

At 5:38 p.m. a harbour vessel for the Port of Vancouver assessed the spill as minor and unrecoverable but the coast guard’s own assessment an hour later determined the spill was more serious.

Western Canada Marine Response Corporation was tasked with the cleanup and arrived on scene at 9:25 p.m. Cleanup crews started skimming the water and had a boom around the vessel by 5:53 a.m.

Thomas called the coast guard’s response “exceptional by international standards,” adding that “80 per cent of the spill was not only contained, but was recovered within 36 hours.”

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