Major oil spill response improvements planned for B.C.

The company responsible for cleaning up oil spills around Vancouver and B.C.'s South Coast has plans for major improvements to its facilities and spill response times pending the approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

$200 million in upgrades will only go ahead if Trans Mountain pipeline expansion approved

Two of WCMRC's roughly 17 vessels float in Burrard Inlet on Tuesday, ready to spring into action in the event of an oil spill. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The organization responsible for cleaning up oil spills around Vancouver and B.C.'s South Coast has plans for major improvements to its facilities and spill response times — but the $200 million upgrades come with a catch: they won't go ahead if the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project isn't approved.

Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) currently has about 17 vessels ready for duty around Vancouver's harbour. The proposed upgrades include a new $10-million spill response base a little west of the Iron Workers Memorial Bridge in Burrard Inlet.

"The idea is we'd be able to bring our vessels together in a centralized location, and that's really going to allow us to really reduce response time," said WCMRC communications manager Michael Lowry.

WCMRC's communications manager Michael Lowry gestures toward one the of the organization's spill response vessels, a barge anchored near North Vancouver's Cates Park. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"That particular facility would be manned 24/7, so in the event of a call — an activation call — our crews can be mobilized to respond within 10 to 15 minutes, so it's really going to cut down on response times."

Lowry said WCMRC has staff on call around the clock, but crews aren't operating 24/7.

The Vancouver harbour base would be just one piece of the much larger plan for five new bases on Vancouver Island and one on the Fraser River.

A map shows the locations of proposed oil spill response bases on B.C.'s South Coast. (WCMRC)

According to Lowry, WCMRC's annual operating costs, funded by the oil and shipping industries, are currently $9-10 million. After the improvements, the annual cost would run $50-60 million.

"We're going to be adding probably about 115 employees and about 26 new response vessels," said Lowry.

The Burrard Inlet base is planned for a vacant dock near New Brighton Park that was once used by the Prince Rupert Fishing Cooperative. The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority will need to approve the permit for the project.

The new Vancouver Island bases would be built in Port Alberni, Ucluelet, Beecher Bay, Sidney, and Nanaimo.

One of WCMRC's oil spill response boats sits next to the dock in East Vanouver where the organization wants to build a new base. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Opposition to pipeline

Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion plan, which would pump nearly 900,000 barrels of diluted bitumen from Alberta's oil sands each day, has run into strong opposition along B.C.'s coast.

Environmental activists have clashed with police over the project, and various governments, including British Columbia, Vancouver, Burnaby, and Victoria have voiced their opposition.

The pipeline expansion has received conditional approval from the National Energy Board, but the final decision, expected before the end of the year, rests with the federal cabinet.

Kinder Morgan's Burnaby facility would pump nearly 900,000 barrels of diluted bitumen into tankers each day if the proposed expansion is approved. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Possible upgrades regardless of pipeline decision

Lowry said the $200 million needed to make the sweeping improvements and reduce spill response time in Vancouver's harbour from six hours to two hours won't come if the Trans Mountain pipeline isn't approved. Kinder Morgan will fund the bulk of the enhancements.

WCMRC began planning the improvements upon request from Trans Mountain, which included the proposed facilities in its National Energy Board application. But Lowry said there's a parallel effort from government to improve oil spill responses along the coast.

WCMRC's plan for a Burrard Inlet base near New Brighton Park is presented in this artist's rendering. (WCMRC)

"There's also been a federal project that's looking at improving the existing response requirements, so that is led by Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard," he said.

"You're always trying to continuously improve. The current planning standards that kind of came out 20 years ago, they were a great start and we've been moving past those ever since."

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker