Environmental groups are calling on Transport Canada to go beyond new international standards for safety and pollution, as it updates national Arctic shipping regulations. 

The Polar Code, which brings together maritime regulations from multiple international conventions, came into force on Jan. 1, 2017, and countries have until the end of the year to bring their legislation in line.  

WWF-Canada says it wants Canada to use the opportunity to lead the way in environmental protection for the Arctic.

Canada can regulate activity within its sovereign waters to protect above and beyond what is required by the Polar Code. 

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Heavy fuel oil does not evaporate like diesel, Dumbrille says, so it persists in the environment spoiling shorelines and coating animals. (Ken Burton)

Andrew Dumbrille, a sustainable shipping specialist with WWF-Canada, says for years Canada held the "gold standard" when it came to safety regulations in the Arctic, but Arctic nations up have caught up.

In its explanation of the draft regulations in the Canada Gazette, Transport Canada says much of the Polar Code was based on Canada's regulations, so updates will be relatively minor.

Treating grey water

Dumbrille said there are two main issues he would like to see addressed in the regulations. The first is a requirement to treat grey water — water from sinks, showers, etc. — before dumping it into the ocean.

He says he is encouraged to see tighter regulation on untreated sewage, but would like to see a ban altogether on dumping it.

"Grey water is sometimes equally, if not more, damaging to the marine environment than sewage and there are strict controls over sewage," said Dumbrille.

Untreated grey water can cause introduce an excess of nutrients into the ocean, which makes dead zones where there is no oxygen and therefore no life, he said. It also carries the risk of introducing invasive species.

Dumbrille said because the reproductive cycles of Arctic animals are longer, what would be considered a small disturbance in a temperate climate has larger consequences in the Arctic. 

Ban heavy fuel oil

Similarly, Dumbrille said WWF-Canada would like to see Transport Canada ban ships from using heavy fuel oil (HFO) in Arctic waters. Currently, as per international conventions, ships are not permitted to use or carry HFO in Antarctic waters because it is difficult to clean up in colder temperatures. 

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Canada can regulate activity within its sovereign waters to protect above and beyond what is required by the Polar Code. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The fuel becomes quite thick in colder temperatures which makes it difficult to use the traditional methods of cleaning up oil spills. It also does not evaporate like diesel, Dumbrille says, so it persists in the environment, spoiling shorelines and coating animals.

Transport Canada explained its rationale for the regulations in the Canada Gazette:

"As these issues will require further consideration and consultation that could delay the implementation of the proposed Regulations," it wrote. "Transport Canada has made the decision to address them separately.

"Their omission does not reflect their level of importance, nor does it preclude the possibility of them being addressed within the proposed Regulations or elsewhere within Canada's Arctic shipping regime at a later date."

Dumbrille said he's encouraged to see these two issues singled out, "however it's not in line with the urgency of the issue," he said.

Canadians have until Sept. 14 to comment on the draft Arctic Shipping Safety and Pollution Prevention Regulations, before they go to parliament for review.