A drop of oil the size of a dime can kill a sea bird. Can 16 barrels of oil, spilled in one of Canada's most beautiful ports, kill a pipeline?
It's beginning to look like maybe it can, when the cleanup response is unnervingly slow, and the waters despoiled surround Stanley Park.
A little more than a week ago, the cargo vessel Marathassa accidentally discharged about 2,700 litres of oil while at anchor in English Bay.
The ship was so close to the city's shores that in about 15 minutes you could have rowed there from the Jericho Sailing Centre, but it would take more than 12 hours for oil spill responders to surround the vessel with a containment boom. The slow response, and the almost comical breakdown in communications between the Coast Guard and a very concerned public, may well have serious repercussions for Kinder Morgan's proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project.
The link between the spill and the proposed pipeline is a simple one for British Columbians to make. If the pipeline goes ahead, the amount of oil transported to Vancouver will triple to 890,000 barrels a day, raising the likelihood that there will be more spills, perhaps much larger than the Marathassa incident.
With such an important energy project looming in the background, and a federal election on the horizon, you can understand why the spill took on political overtones. B.C. Mayor Gregor Robertson was on the beaches for a news conference the day after to say he wasn't happy with the slow response. Premier Christy Clark was quick to follow.
And that prompted the federal government to go into damage control, issuing a flurry of statements about how good the cleanup effort had really been.
"Even before most British Columbians woke up, the boom was completely surrounding the suspect vessel," said Coast Guard Commissioner Jody Thomas, who described the response as "exceptional by international standards."
Recreational boaters became aware of the spill at about 4:45 p.m. and within 15 minutes made calls to alert authorities. One of those boaters, Rob O'Dea, has said the Coast Guard called him back on his cell at 5:08, and he confirmed he was bobbing alongside an oil slick that was at least a half-kilometre long. They assured him a crew was responding. But when he headed into harbour at 7:30 p.m., passing by the stern of the Marathassa where crew members were frantically trying to dip up globs of oil with buckets, he couldn't see any cleanup boats.
According to the Coast Guard's account, Western Canada Marine Response Corp., the agency responsible for responding under directions of the Coast Guard, was notified at 8:06 and arrived on scene at 9:20. The leaking Marathassa wasn't completely boomed off until 5:53 a.m. – so that's more than 12 hours after the Coast Guard was first alerted.
According to standards established by Transport Canada, if a spill of up to 1,000 barrels takes place in the designated waters of the Port of Vancouver, cleanup crews are to be deployed in six hours. But under the regulations, the designated waters extend 80 kilometres from the harbour. So it should take six hours to get to the most distant limits, and common sense tells you they should have got to the Marathassa faster than that.
The communications response was also lacking. The City of Vancouver wasn't informed until 12 hours after the spill was reported. Moving crews and boats on to the water and setting containment booms might take hours, but calling the city should take seconds.
Throughout the incident, the media were given too little information, often too late. One end-of-day update came so late it was really an end-of-yesterday update, and an invitation for media to attend a technical briefing came 16 minutes before the event started.
Had the Coast Guard responded to the Marathassa oil spill that quickly, it really would have been world class. Instead, the response was so slow it left politicians fuming and British Columbians increasingly nervous about the prospects of more oil transiting Vancouver's scenic harbour.