A review into a fuel spill on Vancouver's English Bay has found the response was delayed for nearly two hours due to miscommunication, technology woes and confusion over roles and responsibilities between the Canadian Coast Guard and its partners.
And although the report says cleanup crews did well once they arrived at the spill, it recommends the Coast Guard ensure it has enough staff to respond to an incident anywhere any time, and that it consider expediting an area response plan for the Vancouver region.
Approximately 2,700 litres of Bunker C fuel oil spilled from the MV Marathassa on April 8, revealing potential gaps in the country's marine-response system at a time when major pipeline projects that would dramatically increase tanker traffic along the West Coast are hotly debated. The Coast Guard's response to the spill was criticized as slow by Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and B.C. Premier Christy Clark, among others. The Coast Guard defended its efforts, saying it recovered 80 per cent of the fuel within 36 hours.
A review into the spill, conducted by former Coast Guard assistant commissioner John Butler and released Friday, concluded that while there were some positive aspects of the response, there were also many areas that needed improvement. Mr. Butler made 25 recommendations, all of which federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said would be implemented.
Mr. Butler, at a press conference, said the Coast Guard first received a pollution report at 4:48 p.m. from a nearby sailboat. He said the Coast Guard, after a preliminary inspection by Port Metro Vancouver, gave a "heads-up" to Western Canada Marine Response Corporation at 6:08 p.m. The Coast Guard did not officially activate WCMRC, which is contracted to respond to such spills.
Port Metro Vancouver, meanwhile, continued to search for the source of the spill. The port told WCMRC at 7:03 p.m. that its boat was returning to its base to pick up a sampling kit – a statement WCMRC mistakenly believed to mean the port was standing down. WCMRC passed that information on to the Coast Guard, which did not verify it and did not take action.
At 7:27 p.m., Port Metro Vancouver received aerial surveillance photos from a private aircraft that Mr. Butler said "clearly indicated the significance of the spill." A Coast Guard duty officer, however, could not be immediately contacted. When he was reached, he could not view the photos on his mobile phone. He viewed the pictures on a computer at 7:55 p.m. and WCMRC was activated two minutes later. It arrived on scene at 9:25 p.m.
Mr. Butler said WCMRC should have been activated at 6:08 p.m., not one hour and 49 minutes later. When asked if the delay meant oil that could have been recovered was not, he said it's difficult to tell but "time is important."
"Obviously, the quicker you can boom and contain the source of the oil, the quicker you can get response equipment, the better it is," he said.
Coast Guard Commissioner Jody Thomas said the agency knows it "must prevent such a delay from recurring." She said it has already developed an action plan to implement Mr. Butler's recommendations.
"A critical piece to addressing the delay is clearly in the area of communications. The Coast Guard recognizes the importance of initial communications with our partners and we have already begun reviewing our existing protocols in collaboration with them to ensure they are as effective as possible," she told reporters.
Commissioner Thomas said the report shows responding to the spill was a challenge, particularly since the Marathassa initially denied involvement. She said crews began skimming almost immediately after they arrived and she was proud of the on-water response.
Although the recommendations were largely aimed at the Coast Guard, Mr. Butler did mention some other parties. He said Environment Canada's support during the spill was provided remotely from Montreal, and partners he spoke with felt the agency "was not as effective as it should have been." He said Environment Canada should review its "trigger criteria" for onsite-presence, particularly for complex incidents.
Mr. Butler also said B.C.'s Ministry of Environment, Emergency Management B.C., and the Coast Guard should jointly review alerting and notification procedures. He said it is the province's responsibility to notify municipalities and First Nations. However, the report says the province did not have the most current information to make informed decisions.
B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak, in a written statement, said the spill review "is a very good first step towards ensuring our coast is better protected from any potential spill." She said the recommendations "clearly articulate the need for the Coast Guard to improve spill response capabilities, and also serves as a roadmap towards ensuring that happens."
Minister Polak said the province's goal remains a world-class marine spill regime.
Sadhu Johnston, Vancouver's deputy city manager, said in an interview that the city had "significant concerns" about the spill response and the recommendations are in line with the issues it raised.
"It's clear this was not best practice," he said. He said the response was not well-coordinated.
Mr. Johnston said the city is still reviewing the report, but the recommendation involving the development of an area response plan appears especially important.
"We really needed a geographic response plan," he said. "That was one of the primary things we said. It can't be a generic response plan that would be applicable to the entire coast. We need a plan that's really, 'Which areas are we going to protect? Where are the boats going to come from? How much boom do we need? What do we do about Stanley Park? What do we do about False Creek?'"
Mr. Johnston said the region is not ready for an increase to the amount of oil that's transported along its waters. He said the review also provides the Coast Guard with an opportunity to re-examine the closure of one of its stations in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Kitsilano.
Mr. Butler's report did not mention the Kitsilano base. When asked if the station could have made a difference in the spill response and needed to be reopened, Mr. Butler said he did not believe the additional resources would have played a role.
Mr. Butler's report said the Coast Guard should ensure it has adequate staff to respond to any major marine pollution incident. At the time of the spill, he said, most of the Coast Guard's environmental response employees were just returning from another operation in the Grenville Channel.
Mr. Butler also recommended the Coast Guard ensure accurate information is released by unified command to the public as soon as possible regarding the quantity and type of pollutant.
The owners of the Marathassa agreed in April to a $300,000 bond to ensure it appears for any future proceedings or prosecutions. The vessel left Canadian waters in late April.