British Columbia

B.C. oil spill response times 'a huge risk,' say environmentalists

Despite assurances from Canada's minister of transport that Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline is safe, environmentalists in B.C. fear the expansion is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

It could take responders up to 72 hours to address an oil spill on B.C.'s South Coast

Past spills in B.C. have highlighted the challenges and complications associated with environmental clean-ups. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Despite assurances from Canada's minister of transport that Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline is safe, environmentalists in B.C. fear the expansion is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. 

Christianne Wilhelmson, the executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, said that B.C.'s current spill responses is not effective even for the ships currently operating in the region.

"There is no such thing as an oil spill clean-up. There is no such thing as world class spill response. These are two terms that we use a lot that are actually meaningless," she said.

The expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline, whose approval by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was announced in late November, will bring almost 300 extra oil tankers to the Port of Vancouver every year. 

The expansion will nearly triple the capacity of the pipeline allowing the company to move 890,000 barrels of diluted bitumen and crude oil every day from Alberta to the West Coast.

Past spills, long response times cause concern

Oil spill response times are required to comply with regulations set by Transport Canada.

While spills in the Port of Vancouver must be responded to within six hours, accidents in other parts of the province could take 18 to 72 hours to address. 

Wilhelmson said that recent spills have highlighted the complications and dangers of responding to oil spills. 

When the cargo ship MV Marathassa spilled several thousand litres of bunker fuel into Vancouver's English Bay in April 2015, the emergency response was delayed for several hours due to troubles with communication.

On Oct. 13, the American tug Nathan E. Stewart ran aground and sank near Bella Bella, spilling 100,000 litres of diesel fuel into a sensitive ocean environment, and triggering a complex recovery operation that took over a month to complete.

"Unless you have equipment that's just minutes away all the way up the coast, it's a huge risk," Wilhelmson said.

In early November Trudeau unveiled a $1.5-billion ocean protection plan for responses to tanker and fuel spills in the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

Wilhelmson said the plan does not justify the risks associated with the expansion.

"It is a needed investment for the threats that already exist. It does not in any way, shape or form justify 300 more tankers in the strait," she said.

The WCMRC plans to build a number of new response bases on the South Coast and Vancouver Island. (CBC)

'Not keeping us awake at night'

An additional $200 million is being invested by the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), the industry-funded corporation responsible for handling oil spill cleanup, to enhance its existing spill response capability. 

It says it plans to set up new spill response bases on the south arm of the Fraser River, as well as Nanaimo, the Saanich Peninsula and Beecher Bay on the Strait of Juan De Fuca. 

Port Alberni and Ucluelet will also receive additional cleanup resources.

WCMRC spokesperson Michael Lowry said they don't consider tankers to be high-risk vessels because of they have many security features and have historically been a safe industry.

"They're certainly not keeping us awake at night because of the security mechanisms that are there," he said.

He said that despite the increase in resources, the expansion plan will bring new challenges. 

"Anytime you increase the volume of traffic obviously your risk goes up a little bit," he said. 

With files from Francis Plourde


  • A previous headline incorrectly included a quote that was not attributed in the story. It has been removed and replaced.
    Dec 14, 2017 6:50 AM PT