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A spill response boat secures a boom around the bulk carrier cargo ship MV Marathassa after a bunker fuel spill on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on April 9, 2015.

The owner of the MV Marathassa, the bulk carrier that spilled 2,700 litres of fuel oil into English Bay nearly four years ago, was acquitted of all charges Thursday after a judge concluded the crew had followed all reasonable measures to contain the spill when the leak was discovered.

Provincial Court Justice Kathryn Denhoff concluded the vessel’s owners had exercised due diligence, absolving the company of charges of polluting the waters off English Bay and discharging a substance harmful to migratory birds.

Eugene Kung, a staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, said the decision is further evidence of Canada’s inability to successfully prosecute companies in the event of environmental accidents. He noted last October, a court in the same case found that accidentally dumping bunker oil in the sea is not a crime under Canada’s environmental protection laws.

“It’s extremely disappointing because I think it really highlights that there are some massive tanker-size gaps in our laws and spill response,” said Mr. Kung.

“It's very concerning that this argument of due diligence, that they did everything they could have, allowed them [Marathassa’s representatives] to get out of any responsibility in this case,” he said.

The discharge from the Marathassa, which had only been commissioned three weeks before the spill, was found to be from two defects that were not foreseeable to the crew of the Marathassa, external shipbuilding auditors or experienced Transport Canada inspectors.

Court heard the vessel conducted a stringent crew selection process and training and had extensive pollution prevention systems in place, which were carried out regularly throughout the ship’s voyage from Busan, South Korea.

Charges that the Marathassa failed to implement its shipboard pollution emergency plan were also quashed. The court found that the vessel did implement the pollution plan by taking samples of the water and by assisting the effort to contain the fuel oil.

Despite a clear day in Vancouver it took more than four hours for the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, responsible for cleaning up spills, to arrive and deploy booms around the Marathassa. The delay in response resulted in more oil spilt than was necessary, although it is estimated more than half of the 2,700 litres spilt was recovered.

An independent review commissioned by the federal government described the incident as “an operational discharge of persistent fuel oil with very high consequences.” Beaches were fouled around English Bay, the North Shore, Stanley Park and up into Burrard Inlet. The review found that the response was delayed for nearly two hours as a result of miscommunication, technology woes and confusion over roles and responsibilities between the Coast Guard and its partners.

Mr. Kung sees the victory for Marathassa as a warning about the failures of the current legal system to act as protection against a possible spill resulting from increased oil shipments from the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

“This is a small-scale version of what could happen with the Trans Mountain project should it go ahead, and it’s just a scenario that nobody wants to see," he said.

“What this case really demonstrates is that we cannot count on the existing legal regime to hold those who are responsible accountable for a spill like this,” he said.

“It means the public is left holding the bag, both in clean-up cost and the long-term damage that results from these things.”

With a report from Justine Hunter and The Canadian Press