British Columbia

Vancouver oil spill: Coast Guard defends cleanup response time

After widespread criticism of its oil cleanup response effort, the Canadian Coast Guard has issued a detailed timeline outlining the sequence of events immediately following the detection of a major oil spill in Vancouver's English Bay.

Coast guard says it notified proper agencies within minutes, but message not passed on to everyone

After widespread criticism of its response, the Canadian Coast Guard has issued a detailed timeline outlining the sequence of events immediately following the detection of a major oil spill in Vancouver's English Bay.

Coast Guard Commissioner Jody Thomas said, in a statement released Sunday, the agency was first notified by a recreational boater of a slick around the bulk grain carrier Marathassa at 5:10 p.m. PT Wednesday.

The Canadian Coast Guard's response … was exceptional by international standards.- Coast Guard Commissioner Jody Thomas

Within four minutes the coast guard says it had notified its emergency management partners whose job is to inform local shore-side authorities including municipal governments and First Nations.

At 5:38 p.m. PT, the coast guard said a harbour vessel for the Port of Vancouver had assessed the spill as minor and unrecoverable, but the coast guard's own assessment, an hour later, determined the spill was more serious.

Thomas said the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation was tasked with the oil's cleanup and arrived on scene at 9:25 p.m. PT.

Contrary to criticism that nothing was done until the next day, Thomas said crews went to work that night.

"Our partners carried out skimming in the dark and completed securing a boom around the vessel by 5:53 a.m PT. Even before most British Columbians woke up, the boom was completely surrounding the suspect vessel," she said. 

"[Eighty] per cent of the spill was not only contained, but was recovered within 36 hours. The Canadian Coast Guard's response to the Marathassa spill was exceptional by international standards."

Communication breakdown, new oil

However, during a morning news conference, Assistant Commissioner Roger Girouard said that even though the coast guard sent out the proper notifications, there was a breakdown in communications.

"There were some human factors in a number of organizations where the relay of the intent of the alarm was not always received or passed on," he said. "I can tell you that the coast guard as an organization passed the message on. I can also tell you that the alarm bell did not particularly make it to the mayor of Vancouver."

The Canadian Coast Guard says its response time and cleanup to a major oil spill in English Bay was "exceptional" by international standards, but not everyone was notified due to a communications breakdown. (Richard Lam/CBC)

Girouard declined to specify where the communication breakdown occurred, but said all agencies are reviewing the chain of events to come up with a simpler, faster notification system that would be more widely broadcast.

"We thought we had a sophisticated system in place. Something went awry," he said. "We will fix it."

Girouard also revealed the coast guard had discovered some new oil near the vessel.

The oil was likely either "flushed out of an outlet" or was washed by waves off a soiled boom, Girouard said. 

Girouard said the oil was contained and there is no chance of it escaping or coming to shore. He said the old boom will today be replaced with a new one.

Cleanup on shoreline

He also disputed claims from former Kitsilano Coast Guard personnel that their old base, which was shut down by the federal government, would have provided a faster response.

"Kitsilano was never manned with environment response experts," Girouard said. "Kitsilano, should it have been in place, would not have been called upon for environmental response in this scenario."

Girouard said the oil booms the base possessed were for containment of their own spills.

Cleanup over the next several days is now focused on the shoreline. The coast guard is still asking the public to stay away because the oil requires professional disposal.

He said there are still no signs of distress among marine mammals due to the spill. So far between 12 and 30 oil-covered birds have been rescued and treated.

Girouard asked people to report oil-fouled birds and not try and help. He said if people approach birds, they could scare them back into the water, in effect "killing them with kindness."


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