A diesel spill earlier this week and the larger leak of bunker fuel from the Marathassa in April have illustrated just how easily Vancouver's fragile marine ecosystem can be damaged.

Port Metro Vancouver is mandated to respond to such incidents, and its crews were some of the first on scene when the Marathassa was reported to be leaking.

Robin Silvester, the president and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver, spoke to Stephen Quinn of CBC Radio One's The Early Edition.

A Port Metro Vancouver harbour vessel was one of the first on scene at the spill from the Marathassa that saw thousands of litres of bunker fuel spilled into English Bay. At first it reported that this was only a minor spill. Why was that?

The role of the Port is relatively small in the spill response, it's to provide initial assessment of what's going on then the coast guard is the lead responding agency.

Those situations can be challenging and I think one of the things we can learn is the need to have a very coordinated response in that first few hours of the spill. With that incident what we saw was the clean up was very effective.

The response from the Port, Coast Guard and government that followed is well-documented as being disorganized, slow and lacking in communication. How would you characterize the response to the spill?

Rather than jump to conclusions, there's a federal review underway that we're actively participating in. It's a great opportunity to really learn how the response to these incidents can be improved so we can ensure we do protect the environment that we all value in Vancouver.

I think the clean up was very good. I think in those first few hours, there probably was the opportunity for better coordination and I'm sure through the review process we'll see some recommendations to work on that.

How do you see the port's role in environmental protection evolving and improving?

We already take a large role in environmental protection because we see it as a critical a part of what we do and is a core part of our mandate. As the port authority, we are the stewards of the federal lands. Our role is to manage the lands in a way that helps Canada achieve its trade objectives.

One month before the Marathassa spill there was a fire involving hazardous chemicals at the Port. Many residents felt ill-informed on the day of that accident. What could the port have done better in that situation to ensure citizens knew exactly what was going on?

In that role the city takes the lead in terms of fire response. The coordination of that response was extremely good. What we saw from the city when they reviewed it is that they've already started to put in place some ways to improve communication.

We do a lot drills with first responders, coast guards, and all the emergency agencies. In that one, everything came into place as it should in terms of response.

What more should your organization be doing to ensure people are aware of the kinds of potentially dangerous substances that are passing through their backyards?

We don't have responsibility for the railway system. It's really a transport Canada decision for rail and ports.

If you go back to the container fire, my understanding is within a few seconds of that fire occurring, the first responders knew exactly what they were dealing with. Really it's up to us to make sure our tenants and those others involved in the port comply with the systems that are set up.


This interview has been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: Port Metro responds to oil spill, bunker fire earlier this year.