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Coast Guard budget cuts roil the water in B.C. oil-spill controversy

Oil companies seeking a pipeline path for Alberta crude to open water and new markets breathed a sigh of relief when the ballots were counted in the 2013 provincial election and B.C. Liberal Premier Christy Clark was still in charge. It seemed there was still a way forward for oil with a pro-resource-development government in power.

Last week's heavy oil spill in English Bay, however, has pushed the provincial government further away from getting to "yes," and the oil companies can thank Ottawa for making their already difficult sales job to British Columbians even harder.

Ms. Clark has repeatedly warned that B.C. is not ready for additional oil tanker traffic, and had demanded that Ottawa reopen the Kitsilano Coast Guard base as a starting point. She was ignored, and the payback was delivered on Friday when she slammed the federal government for its "unacceptable" neglect of marine safety on Canada's West Coast.

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While the Clark government has been raising the alarm, the federal Conservative government continued to trim its marine safety resources.

Fred Moxey, the former Kitsilano base commander, notes that for the past two years, the pollution-response vessel that the Coast Guard used to deploy for spills in Vancouver's harbour has been up on blocks. The 47-foot ship, named 701, was equipped with oil-recovery tanks, skimmers, a boom – everything that would have been needed to quickly slap a Band-Aid on the bunker fuel leaking from the cargo ship Marathassa in English Bay.

"The crew was trained and the ship was ready around the clock for a first attack," Captain Moxey said. "Had the base been open and the crew on duty, they would have been out into English Bay in a matter of minutes."

But the cuts dictated in the federal government's 2012 deficit-reduction action plan would not be diverted.

The result: It took six hours for Coast Guard crews to set up a boom to contain the spread – a delay that made it challenging to even pinpoint the source.

Making matters worse, Ottawa is about to close the Vancouver Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre and the Regional Marine Information Centre. The union representing Coast Guard communications officers says the closing will make it even more difficult to prevent shipping accidents and will delay emergency response times.

Allan Hughes, regional director for Unifor Local 2182, said the changes mean that local services responsible for co-ordinating ship movements in the Vancouver harbour will be relocated to Vancouver Island.

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Over the past three years, front-line staff in B.C. have been cut by 25 per cent. "And," he added, "there will no longer be a single Coast Guard employee in Canada's biggest port."

James Moore, the senior federal minister in B.C., said finger-pointing between politicians right now is unhelpful. But politically, the damage to Ottawa's ambitions for getting land-locked oil resources moving through B.C. will be significant.

"It is totally unacceptable that we don't have the spill response that we require here. The federal government needs to step up and make that plan," Ms. Clark told reporters on Friday.

"We're going to have to come up with a better way of doing this, and if that means that in the future the Coast Guard is relieved of their lead in this and starts taking direction from the province, then perhaps that is a better way to do this," she said.

The Coast Guard's regional commissioner defended the response time and maintains keeping the Kitsilano base open would have not made "an iota" of difference. Capt. Moxey, who retired after 35 years with the Coast Guard and has responded to many oil spills in the harbour, disagrees. The assets simply weren't in place, he said, to respond quickly.

The worst spill he encountered was in September, 1973, when two ships collided in a shipping lane in heavy fog. A container ship slammed into a freighter, releasing an estimated 200 tonnes of heavy bunker oil, leaving popular beaches in West Vancouver coated in oil. A month later, another freighter accident spilled 30 tonnes of bunker oil into the harbour, fouling the shores of Stanley Park.

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Back then, Coast Guard crew tossed bales of hay into the water to try to absorb the oil. Today, the technology is much better, but that is of little utility if the resources are not in place when they are needed.

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