The Sentinel 30 is a small workboat, part of Canada’s enhanced oil-spill response regime and docked at a marina near Victoria. About the size of a small fishing boat, it is one of the few tangible assets that have been delivered as part of a federal plan to protect the country’s coasts.
The federal government, when it approved the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, promised to improve marine oil spill protection to help address concerns raised about flaws in cleanup operations for spills on the West Coast. Those promises included the Oceans Protection Plan, which covered all three coasts, and a significant expansion of the Western Canada Marine Response Corp., which handles spill response in B.C. waters.
The western portions of those plans have been in limbo since a federal Court of Appeal decision quashed the environmental permits for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in late August. The Western Canada Marine Response had started spending the money from a $150-million plan for new oil-spill response, but those commitments are now on hold.
Washington State legislators have long complained that Canada is a laggard in addressing the need to protect against oil spills in the shared waters of the Salish Sea, and the uncertainty only adds to their irritation. The region, which includes the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, is a busy marine highway for the ports of Vancouver and Seattle, and Washington State shoulders the cost of the region’s only emergency response tug.
The state passed legislation this year to increase resources to meet the present-day risks of an oil spill in the Salish Sea, and state senator Reuven Carlyle said both jurisdictions need to work together to close gaps in response capacity and address increasing traffic and the possibility of spills.
"The research, the data, the science, is unequivocal that the risks are escalating exponentially, and Canada’s response is not commensurate to that risk,” Mr. Carlyle said in an interview.
He said the economic and social ties between B.C. and his state run deep, and Ottawa’s insistence on holding back needed investments in spill response is unsettling to Washingtonians. "That’s why there is such deep sadness by what many of us see as a lack of grace and dignity in the national government in Canada toward this shared, precious resource.”
Western Canada Marine Response provides spill services for Canada’s 27,000 kilometres of B.C. coastline. The agency took out a loan to add new services, expecting to repay it through tolls it would collect on the expanded Trans Mountain pipeline.
The measures were to include 40 new marine vessels at six bases from Ucluelet to the Vancouver Harbour. Leases have been signed on the land for the bases, but construction won’t begin until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government addresses the court’s concerns – especially the risk to the endangered southern resident killer whales in the Salish Sea - and the pipeline project resumes.
The Trans Mountain expansion would increase the number of tankers carrying crude oil that travel through these waters from 44 last year to 408. Those new tankers would have stricter safety requirements, including additional tug escorts all the way to Port Renfrew. But for the existing traffic, the rules have not changed.
Ottawa is determined to see the pipeline expansion completed, and maintains that it will proceed with the Oceans Protections Plan no matter what. But two years after announcing the “largest investment ever made” to protect the country’s coasts, many of the details are still being worked out. There is no timeline for the changes, other than a commitment to launch consultations. Ottawa has ordered equipment for six new radar stations in B.C., but it is not clear when they will be installed. Two emergency rescue tugs are also promised for the west coast, but neither are intended for the inland waters of the Salish Sea.
The need for shared responsibility in these shared waters was made plain 30 years ago.
In 1988, the tow cable between the tug Ocean Service and its oil-laden barge, the Nestucca, snapped in Grays Harbor, WA. The crew reversed the tug in an attempt to re-attach the cable, ripping a gash in the barge. Days later, Canadian officials were informed that the leaking barge had been hauled out to the open ocean, where 870,000 litres of Bunker C oil dispersed in choppy conditions.
As the oil spread over an area from the shores of Oregon to British Columbia’s rocky coast, tens of thousands of migratory birds were killed. Fisheries were closed, and submerged oil smothered crab traps 24 fathoms deep off Tofino.
The Canadian response to the Nestucca spill was slow and uncoordinated, marred by bureaucratic infighting. An internal report on the incident for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans called for better communication between U.S. and Canadian officials, more research on the long-term effects of oil on wildlife and habitat, and improved tactics to clean up submerged oil. The local Indigenous communities played crucial roles in the clean-up and “should be encouraged in future concerns and contingency planning as a major component of the response effort," the report concluded.
Today, those recommendations are still in the works.
Brian Wootton, regional director of incident management for the Canadian Coast Guard, says new resources are flowing to the Coast Guard as a result of the Oceans Protection Plan. His environmental response team has grown from 17 to 45 people, and it is training Indigenous first responders who live in coastal communities.
Cross-border and inter-agency co-operation has been improved, he added. Mr. Wootton was in the unified command post in 2015 for the response to the oil spill from the bulk grain carrier MV Marathassa in Vancouver’s English Bay.It was the first time that the Canadian Coast Guard invited other agencies to be part of an emergency response, but the cleanup effort was beset by delays and miscommunication as fuel washed up on prized Vancouver beaches. The lessons learned there prompted changes that are helping to build trust with their U.S. counterparts, he said.
The Coast Guard’s ability reach out, and train and exercise with partners, “has been strained throughout my career.” But last October, Mr. Wooton’s team participated in the largest marine disaster exercise in Canadian Coast Guard history. That exercise in the Salish Sea brought in crew and assets from the United States, local governments, and a dozen Indigenous communities to practice an oil-spill response.
“For that kind of collaboration, you need a high degree of trust and a high degree of regular participation,” Mr. Wootton said. “In terms of gap-filling, we have come a long way.”