Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has condemned government agencies’ handling of a spill of suspected bunker fuel oil from a freighter in English Bay that has fouled area beaches.
The Canadian Coast Guard estimates 2,800 litres or about 17 barrels of oil spilled from the grain freighter Marathassa as it was anchored in English Bay.
“The response to what is a relatively small oil spill by historical standards has been totally inadequate to date,” Robertson told reporters Friday.
“If this had been a significant spill this kind of response would have been a catastrophe.”
Robertson questioned why it took six hours after the discovery of the spill around 5 p.m. Wednesday to start deploying containment booms, why it took 13 hours to notify the City of Vancouver, and why as of Friday the exact substance spilled is not yet confirmed.
He reiterated Vancouver’s opposition to past federal decisions to close the Kitsilano Coast Guard base and cut staff at a federal oil spill response centre in Vancouver.
“This really goes back to the lack of leadership from the federal and provincial governments to ensure these efforts are coordinated, that there’s an immediate response to an oil spill in Vancouver’s waters, regardless of the scale of it, and that response is lacking.”
Coast Guard officials estimate 80 per cent of the spilled oil has been recovered, mainly by skimmer vessels from the Western Canada Marine Response Corp.
Robertson said it’s unclear how much of the remainder has sunk to the bottom to pose a long-term environmental hazard.
Premier Christy Clark was also sharply critical of the Coast Guard’s delayed response, noting the local availability of spill response equipment and personnel did not appear to be the issue.
“The problem was they weren’t deployed,” Clark said. “The Coast Guard didn’t make the decision in a timely manner to get them out there.”
She said the situation underscores what the province has long said – that world-class spill response does not yet exist here, not just for a potential future increase in oil tanker shipments but to deal with leaks and spills from other ships already carrying cargo and passengers.
“It is totally unacceptable that we don’t have the spill response that we require here – the federal government needs to step up,” Clark said.
“I hope it’s a wake-up call to push the Coast Guard into action to ensure we’re ready
not just for shipping that may come but for shipping that’s here now.”
She said the federal government has committed to improvements, but “they are not there yet.”
The premier reiterated there will be no new heavy oil pipelines in B.C. without world-class spill response, among other provincial pre-conditions.
It’s unclear whether the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard base degraded the response, Clark said, but added the province opposed the federal decision.
Clark said deficiencies of Coast Guard response were also demonstrated in the case of the Russian container ship Simushir, which lost power in rough seas and drifted for hours before being towed away from the coast of Haida Gwaii last October.
If the Coast Guard can’t respond quickly enough, Clark said, it should transfer leadership authority to the province, which has long experience overseeing incident command for forest fires and other emergencies under its jurisdiction.
Port officials have said the oil initially appeared to be an unrecoverable light sheen on the water surface until heavier concentrations were found.
The Marathassa initially denied it was the source but has been found responsible and is expected to be liable for cleanup costs. The new vessel is thought to have malfunctioned on its maiden voyage.
Despite the containment efforts, large slicks extended to shore, where cleanup volunteers were finding tar balls and oiled seaweed. Some oil reached Sandy Cove in West Vancouver.
A multi-agency cleanup operation is expected, with careful work to clean soiled intertidal areas without excessive damage to marine life.
– with files from Tom Fletcher
A slick believed to be bunker fuel oil in between freighters in Vancouver harbour. Photo: @Chad_Dey / @News1130Radio on Twitter