British Columbia·Analysis

Can we contain oil spills? The answer is in the sheen

If the Trudeau government approves the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline project, the company responsible for oil spill cleanups in B.C. will get the biggest infusion of cash in its history. But will it make a difference?

Tugboat sinking off B.C.'s central coast last month serves as case study on spill response

Diesel fuel from the sunken Nathan E. Stewart tugboat floats in the Seaforth Channel near Bella Bella, B.C. (April Bencze/Heiltsuk Nation)

If the Trudeau government approves the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline, B.C.'s oil cleanup industry will be in line for the biggest infusion of cash in its history.

Kinder Morgan will be forced to fund the majority of a $200-million spill-response upgrade on the West Coast for new bases, equipment and 150 staff.

Harder to quantify is how much confidence people should have that crews can actually remove oil from water if a major tanker spill occurs.
The response to the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart has been under the microscope as the federal government prepares to decide the fate of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. (Jordan Wilson)

"It's clear that even the best available technology and most qualified personnel can't effectively contain or mitigate a spill," said Jess Housty, a Heiltsuk Nation council member in Bella Bella, B.C.

She's spent nearly the past two months helping co-ordinate the local response to the sinking of an American tugboat, the Nathan E. Stewart, off B.C.'s central coast.

"I shudder to think of the risk we'll face if we see an increase in shipping due to new or expanded pipelines," she said.
Diesel escaped containment booms for weeks after the Nathan E. Stewart sank. (Heiltsuk Nation)

The Trudeau government is expected to announce as early as Tuesday the fate of three pipeline proposals, including Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion. The pipeline would follow an existing route from the Edmonton area and across B.C. to a terminus on Burrard Inlet in Metro Vancouver. 

It would triple Kinder Morgan's capacity to nearly 900,000 barrels per day. It would also increase the number of tankers through Burrard Inlet from one per week to one every day.

The National Energy Board previously approved the project with 157 conditions, but the federal cabinet ordered a further review. 

Fuel spill frustrates responders

The decision comes as damage from fuel spills is top of mind for many in B.C.'s coastal communities.

On Oct. 13, the Nathan E. Stewart ran aground and sank in the Seaforth Channel with 200,000 litres of diesel fuel on board.

Half of the diesel was removed without leaking into the ocean, but tens of thousands of litres escaped into the water and onto the beaches in the ecologically sensitive Great Bear Rainforest.

Containment booms were often unable to cope with the rough ocean conditions and broke, while skimmers and other mechanical efforts struggled to corral and recapture the fuel.
Crews cleaning up after the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart were forced to abandon their efforts on several occasions when storms pounded B.C.'s central coast. (April Bencze/Heiltsuk Nation)

"100 per cent recovery is never possible," said Mike Lowry of the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, or WCMRC, the industry-funded company with legislated responsibility to clean up all ocean spills in B.C.

But, he quickly adds, "...that doesn't mean a lesser recovery is somehow inadequate or a failed response."
Waves tore containment booms to shreds and deposited them on nearby beaches during storms following the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart. (April Bencze/Heiltsuk Nation)

Five to 15 per cent recovery rate?

The industry's success rate on spill cleanup is open to wide interpretation.

One of the most frequently cited statistics, repeated in a 2013 report for the federal government on spill readiness, is that even with optimal conditions, often only five to 15 per cent of spilled oil is ever recovered using booms and skimmers.

Lowry says the number is misleading.

"That's an average of offshore oil spills, you can't take that and apply it to all spills," he said, because spills in harbours or close to shore have far higher recovery rates.
A spill-response boat monitors a boom placed around the bulk carrier cargo ship MV Marathassa after it spilled bunker fuel in Vancouver's Burrard Inlet on April 9. (Canadian Press)

Last year, for example, the grain carrier MV Marathassa released 2,800 litres of bunker oil into Vancouver's English Bay.

With near optimal conditions for responders — calm seas and WCMRC's main base just minutes away — the cleanup company says it recovered 50 per cent of the fuel.

"You need to look at where the spill happens and the kind of product," Lowry said.

He says evaporation, chemical dispersants and even burning are all now scientifically accepted means of dealing with spills that don't involve physically recovering oil from the water.

Public expectations 'seldom satisfied'

Marine spill consultant Gerald Graham, who's testified at National Energy Board hearings on the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, says spill responders such as WCMRC have what amounts to a thankless task.

"It's about dealing with a crisis — perhaps even an environmental catastrophe — where the public's expectations will seldom, if ever, be satisfied," he told CBC News.
If the Trans Mountain Pipeline is approved, WCMRC plans to build new bases on B.C.'s south coast and Vancouver Island. (CBC)

WCMRC claims with the new capacity that would come with the Trans Mountain expansion, it would be able to respond to a worst-case spill — more than 10,000 tonnes — within a few hours anywhere on B.C.'s southern shipping lanes.

It says it would be capable of cleaning more than 3,000 metres of shoreline a day and skimming more than 840 tonnes of oil off the surface every hour.

Yet, experience from past spills indicates weather and location often have more to do with how much oil is recovered than personnel and equipment.
An oil tanker anchors at the terminus to the Trans Mountain pipeline in Burnaby, B.C. TMX's shallow port can’t accommodate modern supertankers. (Chris Corday/CBC)

West Coast spills

One of the largest spills to hit Canadian waters occurred in 1988, when U.S. oil barge the Nestucca dumped 5,500 barrels, or 874,000 litres, of bunker C oil off Washington State, eventually flowing onto the beaches of Vancouver Island.

In the rough ocean conditions, much of the oil sank below the surface, making skimming impossible. None of the oil was recovered at sea.

In December 1988, the U.S.-based Nestucca tanker barge spilled tens of thousands of litres of oil off Vancouver Island, none of which was recovered at sea. (CBC)

A few months later, the spill was eclipsed by the Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska.

The super tanker dumped 40 million litres of crude oil into the waters of Prince William Sound.

 A $2-billion recovery operation recovered just eight to 15 per cent of the oil.

'Impossible to contain'

The takeaway for environmentalist Ian McAllister, who lives on Denny Island, just 25 minutes from the recent Bella Bella spill site, is that the wisest choice is to simply not allow the ships that cause the worst spills in the first place.

"It's just impossible to contain a spill once it happens," he said.

"It's watching helplessly and allowing Mother Nature to mitigate for years to come."
Crews use high-pressure hoses to blast the rocks on a beach on Naked Island, Alaska, after the Exxon Valdez spill on March 24, 1989. (Associated Press)

These days, just three per cent of ships that call on the Port of Vancouver are oil tankers.

But with the Trudeau government's stated desire to get Alberta oil to Asia, B.C.'s spill response business awaits its big infusion.
Diesel leaked onto the shoreline of islands within the Great Bear Rainforest for weeks after the Nathan E. Stewart sank near Bella Bella. (April Bencze/Heiltsuk Nation)


  • An earlier version of this story said the U.S. oil barge, the Nestucca, had dumped 5,500 barrels, or 87,000 litres, of bunker C oil into Juan de Fuca Strait. In fact, the amount is 874,000 litres and the oil flowed into the Juan de Fuca Strait from the spill location off the Washington coast.
    Nov 28, 2016 5:46 PM PT


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.


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