New cleanup agency for spills on land

Province says PRO could coordinate, respond to environmental emergencies from trains, trucks and pipelines

An oiled duck is handled by responders following the spill of bunker fuel oil from a freighter off Vancouver in April.

The province will require industry to pay for a new organization to quickly deploy trained and equipped responders to deal with a spill of oil or any other hazardous substance on land.

New legislation will come next spring and the new Preparedness and Response Organization (PRO) is to be in place by 2017 to counter a variety of land-based spills, including train derailments, tanker truck crashes and pipeline failures that release petroleum or other chemicals.

Environment Minister Mary Polak predicted it will significantly improve B.C.’s readiness to coordinate and, if necessary, lead the response to a spill on land without delays to determine who is responsible.

Companies will have to join the new response organization if the risk they pose – based on the volume and toxicity of the cargo they ship – exceeds a certain risk threshold that is yet to be determined.

The spiller will remain responsible for response and cleanup costs, but if its efforts are failing the province would be able to call the PRO in to take over.

Polak likened the new agency’s role to that of the Western Canada Marine Response Corp., the non-profit industry-funded group that responds to marine spills.

“That’s the kind of idea that we are looking at so you have one body that can be contacted, can be immediately put into place, taking action even before we’ve identified who’s responsible for a spill,” she said.

Polak said the aim is to fill gaps in readiness, not to duplicate existing industry efforts.

While the federal government has jurisdiction over problems along a pipeline right-of-way, Polak said a spill could cause environmental damage over a wider area.

“If one imagines the damage that a pipeline spill could potentially do, much of that would then be potentially our responsibility outside of that pipeline right of way.”

First Nations and other local communities are expected to play significant roles in the new system.

The B.C. SPCA is also involved in the planning work to ensure international best practices in caring for oiled animals, said chief scientific officer Dr. Sara Dubois.

The federal government has jurisdiction over spills at sea.

But the province says the new land-based spill response system will also be ready to pitch in on a marine spill by helping coordinate the response and quickly minimizing shoreline impacts, if necessary.

Polak said a lack of good coordination between agencies was one of the problems that arose in the Marathassa fuel oil spill in English Bay in April, and reiterated the need for Ottawa to bolster marine response preparedness.

“What we have now is outdated,” she said. “The province is not prepared for a major spill.”

Premier Christy Clark had previously said if Ottawa can’t do better on marine response it should relinquish authority to B.C.

World-leading spill response capabilities on land and at sea are among the province’s preconditions for agreeing to new heavy oil pipelines.

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