Local Governments Say Feds' Response to Vancouver Fuel Spill Was Too Slow

Politicians blamed each other for delayed spill response last week, as many popular Vancouver beaches remain closed.

by Sarah Berman
Apr 15 2015, 2:42pm

Shore cleanup at Second Beach in Vancouver. All photos by Richard Lam

Cleanup is still ongoing and a half-dozen Vancouver beaches remain closed after a grain freighter spilled an estimated 2,700 litres of fuel into English Bay last week. The MV Marathassa ship was brand new, on its first voyage from Japan to Vancouver when its fuel tank began leaking Wednesday, April 8.

On Monday, the Canadian Coast Guard hosted an "operational update" defending its spill response against harsh criticism from Vancouver's mayor, BC's premier, and a former Kitsilano Coast Guard commander.

"The Canadian Coast Guard's response to the Marathassa spill was exceptional by international standards, a fact corroborated by a US oil spill expert," said coast guard commissioner Jody Thomas in a press statement, neglecting to name the American expert. "80 percent of the spill was not only contained, but was recovered within 36 hours."

Retired Coast Guard commanding officer Fred Moxey launched the first round of blame last week, telling a local radio station the Coast Guard base he oversaw in Kitsilano would have responded to the spill in minutes, not hours, if it was still open. He questioned why it took six hours to start skimming and 13 hours to get a boom around the leaking ship.

The feds closed the Kitsilano Coast Guard station in February 2013 to save $700,000 in yearly operational costs. "Now we have this spill right out in the front door of the station," Moxey told CKNW. "We would have been on the scene in several minutes, we would have been able to do an assessment, and also we stored 1,000 feet of oil spill boom."

Government officials maintain the Kits base "never provided these types of environmental response operations" and the six-hour reaction time was "consistent with established practices."

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson piled on during a Friday morning press conference, again questioning why responders waited hours to call for emergency boats, and overnight to inform city officials. "The response to what is a relatively small oil spill by historical standards has been totally inadequate to date," he said. He blamed both federal and provincial governments for a "lack of leadership."

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark joined the critic chorus Friday suggesting the federal government hand over its oil spill responsibilities if it's not going to deliver "world-leading" marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery. "Somebody needs to do a better job of protecting the coast, and the coast guard has not done it," she said.

It's worth noting major budget cutbacks closed an Environment Canada office in Vancouver specifically tasked with responding to oil spills. The Vancouver emergency response outpost closed along with similar regional offices in Edmonton, Toronto, St. John's, and Dartmouth back in 2012.

Vancouver's vocal pipeline opponents often cite these cutbacks as proof the Burrard Inlet can't handle more oil tanker traffic. Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain megaproject, for example, would put 29 more heavy oil tankers in the inlet every month.

"What I see is a city and a province that is not prepared for this at all," said one cleanup volunteer on English Bay shores last week. "We're just not ready for it."

Despite the storm of criticism, Coast Guard commissioner Thomas said she was "enormously pleased" with the response which has already entered a new phase focused on shoreline safety and cleanup. Signs at English Bay, Sunset Beach, New Brighton, Second and Third Beach now warn people not to swim or attempt to clean up the spill.

Though officials initially estimated the spill was under 3,000 litres—with only six litres left on the surface Friday—Thomas said Monday these were "conservative" estimates and it's still too early to know the spill's exact volume. So far the coast guard isn't releasing how much money has been spent on cleanup, but said the company is cooperating and will pay for the mess.

Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.