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Harbor tugs and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Pike head toward the Bay Bridge in front of the San Francisco skyline as shown from the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2007.

Jeff Chiu/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The fog was almost too thick to see the water from his office at Pier 1, but when Richard Berman got to work that morning, he could smell some of the 200,000 litres of bunker fuel that had spilled into the Port of San Francisco.

That was several hours before the U.S. Coast Guard notified the surrounding cities and ports around San Francisco Bay that the cargo ship MV Cosco Busan had hit part of the Bay Bridge and punctured two of its fuel tanks.

"It was one of the foggiest days I've ever seen, but the smell was very powerful," said Mr. Berman, who monitors environmental compliance at the port. "I saw it and smelled it before I heard about it through any notification process."

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Within several hours of the incident on Nov. 7, 2007, two response organizations hired by the vessel's owner began cleaning up the spill, but strong currents had already pulled the viscous fuel kilometres down the coast, and the spill soon became the San Francisco Bay's worst in nearly two decades. The bunker fuel contaminated about 42 kilometres of shoreline, killing more than 2,500 birds and temporarily closing a fishery in the bay and delaying the start of the crabbing season.

The lessons learned from that spill hold resonance in British Columbia, where authorities faced similar – though less – circumstances following a bunker fuel leak into Vancouver's English Bay last week.

The finger-pointing among government agencies and the unanswered questions surrounding the response to the spill within sight of the city's beaches have raised questions about Premier Christy Clark's demand that clean-up protocols be "world class" before her government will support new pipelines funnelling Alberta petroleum products to B.C.'s coast.

The Canadian Coast Guard says its response last week was exactly that; the province and Mayor Gregor Robertson have disagreed, saying the federal agency was uncommunicative in the crucial early hours. There have also been pointed questions about why it took 11 hours after the first report of a spill to identify the leaking ship, and why it took 12 hours for the City of Vancouver to be notified about the toxic brew in its waters.

Roughly 14,000 marine oil spills are reported around the world every year, most too small to attract any media attention. Canadian waters experience about two bunker fuel spills annually, according to a federal review panel's report into Canada's response released last August.

An independent risk assessment commissioned by Transport Canada two years ago indicated there was a low probability of a large oil spill on B.C.'s coast, but if one were to happen, it would most likely occur around the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

Experts agree there's no single "world class" standard for oil spill response, but say leading regimes have some key things in common: clearly identified command structures led by a government representative; good communication between all parties; and enough funding to drill industry and government partners so everyone is properly prepared.

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Marlene Calderon, a foremost academic and consultant on spill response, said in an e-mailed statement that the U.S. system is much more effective than its Canadian counterpart because the U.S. system puts "major burden in initiating the response on the potential polluter."

"It is hard to believe that in the case of the Marathassa spill, the slick alert came first from a recreational boater rather than the captain of the MV Marathassa," said Prof. Calderon, of Southampton Solent University.

Mr. Berman said the most important lesson learned after the Cosco Busan spewed its fuel into San Francicso Bay was that no matter how big the spill, all the local authorities need to be notified immediately and included in the overall response.

"That means anyone who might potentially be affected can begin preparing," Mr. Berman said.

Today, the U.S. Coast Guard has mandated area planning updates in San Francisco Bay to ensure officials working from all levels of government are familiar with one another, Mr. Berman said.

Half of the port's 240 staff, mostly the tradespeople that keep the facilities running, must undergo an initial 24 hours of spill response training and renew their qualifications annually with an eight-hour course, and they must also get out on the water once a year and exercise their skills, such as deploying oil booms and monitoring tides, so that they can help out immediately in the event of a larger spill.

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To maintain its certification, the marine response firm must demonstrate to Transport Canada that it is prepared to respond to a spill under various circumstances, and is required to conduct equipment deployment exercises and oil spill response training courses for its crew.

But a 2013 study commissioned by the B.C. provincial government stated that the West Coast's industry-funded response organization, Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, didn't make its contingency plans open for public review and could benefit from a short series of unannounced drills to test its capabilities.

Federal standards for spills such as the one last week require resources to be deployed on the scene within six hours, a mark that appears to have been met in this case.

Port Metro Vancouver led an emergency response and security training exercise with 120 people from more than 30 organizations last April, according to its 2013 sustainability report. It spent an average of $2,055 on training exercises for its 293 employees in 2013, and encourages its employees to "undertake continuous education, training and professional development," according to the same report.

Joe Spears, managing director of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group consulting firm, said that in Norway, federal and municipal government employees working in coastal communities are trained to respond to an oil spill. Equipment is cached in various places around a municipality and municipal employees can conduct "pollution countermeasures" such as firefighters putting bales of hay on the beach or scaring birds away from a slick, he said.

Mr. Spears, a former maritime lawyer, said Washington State leads the world in integrating a robust oil-spill response between different agencies. "On a scale of one to 10, the State of Washington, working in co-operation with its partners and the U.S. Coast Guard … I would say they're probably an eight or nine and we're [the Canadian Coast Guard] at probably a one or two when it comes to reaching out," Mr. Spears said.

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Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, preparedness manager at Washington State's Department of Ecology, said the starkest difference between B.C. and her jurisdiction is Washington's stricter regulation of the oil industry and enforcement of regular exercises involving all parties.

"In Washington, the industry conducts drills, but they don't get to just self-certify themselves, there's an evaluation by the state agency, an independent evaluation of the performance of that plan," Ms. Pilkey-Jarvis said. "That is so important because you really work out all the issues ahead of a spill actually occurring and everybody knows what the expectations are."

In waters in and around Washington's high-volume ports, she said response organizations must have equipment deployed to a spill within 12 hours of it first being reported, under federal laws.

But she said the state, which first started crafting strong regulations after the Nestucca barge spill in the late eighties, wants responders to be on the water working to surround the polluting vessel with booms within two hours in such areas. There are then benchmarks, like the length of boom deployed or shoreline needing protection, that the responder must hit within the next two hours in order to scale up their operation depending on the severity of the spill, Ms. Pilkey-Jarvis said. That sliding scale continues until the spill is contained, she added.

Darryl Anderson, a marine shipping consultant and past president of the Port Alberni Port Authority, said making Canada's blanket time-response standards even stricter probably wouldn't help because he doesn't have confidence that responders could meet those targets.

Canada falls short of other nations in the unwillingness of the Coast Guard to step in during the crucial initial hours to direct the spill response – that is because the polluter-pays principle means the vessel often takes the lead role, he said.

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"There is a tendency in Canada to ask, 'Who is in charge here,'" Mr. Anderson told a Senate committee on shipping oil two years ago. "If you go to the U.S. and you point to a port captain and the U.S. Coast Guard commander, make no mistake, they are in charge."

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