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Officials seek answers after toxic spill in Vancouver's English Bay

Crews on spill response boats work to contain bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa, second right, on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 9, 2015.

Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A toxic spill that prompted the City of Vancouver to warn residents away from the water and beaches and sparked fears of lasting damage to picturesque English Bay was not massive and was expected to be largely cleaned up by Thursday night, the coast guard said.

But questions about the cause of the spill, the exact material involved, and even the ship it came from remain unanswered.

The spill was reported around 5 p.m. Wednesday by a person on a sailboat. Approximately 3,000 litres of material – initially believed to be fuel, though the coast guard said that must still be confirmed by a lab – poured into a stretch of water not far from Stanley Park. About 1,400 litres of material had been collected by the time of a news conference Thursday afternoon, with the lion's share expected to be recovered by the evening.

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The spill left a kilometre-long slick, and an oily sheen could be seen along the water. The incident also raised concerns about the length of time it took for the city to be notified, and the effect a larger spill could have had.

Roger Girouard, assistant commissioner for the Canadian Coast Guard, told reporters "no large slicks of black oil have touched the shoreline." However, he said some "black tar balls" had reached the beach.

Mr. Girouard said some of the material that was collected has been sent off for testing. He said it could be bunker fuel or raw crude and the coast guard was treating it in that fashion. He said the vessel believed to have triggered the spill – which was hauling grain – was essentially brand new. The ship's master denied the vessel was to blame, he said, though Mr. Girouard expressed some skepticism.

"I can't definitively say that it came from that vessel," he said. "What I do know is that when we boomed it there was no more emergent oil."

Mr. Girouard said the size of the spill was of concern but not catastrophic. He said officials boarded the ship at about 10:20 p.m. and the boom was set up at about 2:20 a.m.

City of Vancouver officials expressed concern about the fact they were not notified about the spill until 6 a.m. The city then activated its emergency operations centre and encouraged residents to stay away from the water and beaches because the material was toxic. The park board is still urging people to stay out of the water until the full impact of the spill can be assessed.

"I think all of council will want to know the details of the event, how notifications occurred, who decided to make various decisions about response time," said Geoff Meggs, a city councillor. "Clearly, the spill cleanup began quite promptly, but was it enough? Was there more we could do? We didn't have a chance to offer that input, as far as I know."

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Mr. Girouard said the coast guard had believed one of the other agencies involved would notify the city. He said that aspect will have to be reviewed.

Mr. Meggs said a spill is something "no one in Vancouver wants to see." He said it highlights the dangers that could come if there is increased tanker traffic. Spencer Chandra Herbert, the NDP MLA for Vancouver-West End, said the spill was a major concern for his constituents. He also pointed to potential increases in tanker traffic, such as for the Trans Mountain pipeline project.

Mr. Girouard was at one point in the news conference asked if coast guard cutbacks could have played a role in the response. The closing of a Vancouver coast guard station two years ago sparked immense controversy. Mr. Girouard, however, said he believed the resources were in place to adequately address the spill.

Dana Miller, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre, said it's too early to tell what sort of environmental impact the spill will have.

The Vancouver Aquarium said its marine science centre was closely monitoring developments. It said its immediate concern was the effect the spill would have on aquatic species that live at or around the water's surface.

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