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A spill response boat secures a boom around the cargo ship MV Marathassa after a bunker fuel spill on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on April 9, 2015. One former maritime lawyer said if the U.S. Coast Guard ranked an eight or nine out of 10 worldwide, then Canada’s Coast Guard would rank a one or two.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Newly released U.S. documents show American authorities are nervously eyeing Canadian proposals to triple the number of oil tanker voyages through the shared waters off B.C.'s coast, saying among themselves that Canadian standards to clean up a major spill are decades behind those of the U.S. and leave states vulnerable to environmental damage and costs.

After the MV Marathassa spilled sticky, toxic bunker fuel into Vancouver's harbour this month, Washington State officials noted in interviews with The Globe and Mail that the state's oil-spill response regime was far advanced from Canada's. One former maritime lawyer said if the U.S. Coast Guard ranked an eight or nine out of 10 worldwide, then Canada's Coast Guard would rank a one or two.

But the records obtained by The Globe under U.S. access-to-information laws show that American officials have been worried about Canada's oil-response capabilities for years, dating back to Canada's National Energy Board hearings into the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and the proposed Kinder Morgan expansion project.

Some even urged the U.S. to sue the National Energy Board after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was initially barred from participating at the NEB hearings into Kinder Morgan on the grounds that it had missed the deadline to apply for commentator status.

"A catastrophic oil spill would set the Puget Sound cleanup effort back decades, and result in billions of dollars in harm to our economy and environment," the state's Ecology Department officials wrote to Washington Governor Jay Inslee in 2013.

"While other Pacific Rim trading partners benefit, our state will incur many of the risks. In the Salish Sea oil spill risks are being transferred by Canadian industry to Washington state, without sufficient controls."

They also contrasted spill response systems: "B.C. lacks authority over marine waters, and their federal regime is probably a couple of decades behind the system currently in place in Washington State. … When it is spilled, we are concerned that dilbit oil may be considerably more toxic and damaging, and far more difficult to clean up, than conventional crude from Alaska."

In a briefing to Mr. Inslee before a March, 2013, meeting with U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Keith Taylor, commander of the Pacific Northwest District, officials in the Ecology Department added: "Our industry and port should not have to incur higher cost than their counterparts in Canada because of their weaker standards. We need to have a level playing field with the Port of Vancouver."

The documents also show lawyers working for the Environmental Protection Agency were unhappy about being denied full participant status on the Trans Mountain pipeline hearings a year ago.

The National Energy Board has been holding the hearings on whether to approve Kinder Morgan's proposed $5.4-billion expansion of the pipeline, which would boost capacity between Edmonton and Burnaby to 890,000 barrels a day from 300,000 barrels. The Alberta heavy bitumen would then be shipped in tankers to Asia. The NEB expects to advise cabinet on the project by January, 2016.

Although Trans Mountain would not cross the border, the Environmental Protection Agency predicted in a comment to the NEB last spring that, "nearly tripling the capacity of the current pipeline will have potential air quality impacts on the trans-boundary air shed, including the U.S. portion."

In February, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency was initially denied a chance to make a submission on Trans Mountain because it missed the deadline to apply. But two months later, the NEB gave the agency a lower ranked "commenter" status. Unlike intervenor status, this allows the EPA to send in its views by letter to the NEB hearing, but does not allow the agency to provide sworn evidence and cross-examine other parties. Full-fledged intervenor status was granted to the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency said in e-mails that's contrary to the NEB's obligations under Canadian law.

Last Nov. 21, Courtney Weber of the agency's Seattle office wrote to tell other agency lawyers that four Puget Sound native groups had asked the agency to file a motion forcing the NEB to suspend its Kinder Morgan assessment hearings until the board consulted with the agency.

Ms. Weber wrote that the groups were arguing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act requires the NEB to "consult and co-operate" with the EPA.

"I read through the [CEAA] and it appears to me that Earthjustice/Tribes have a good point," Ms. Weber wrote.

"It does appear that NEB should have consulted with the U.S. (and, in turn, EPA and other such agencies) given the scope of the project which will increase tanker traffic in the [Puget] Sound. … NEB never actually sent out an offer to consult as contemplated by Section 18 of the CEAA."

On Nov. 24, Environmental Protection Agency official Tricia Jefferson in Washington, D.C., wrote of the agency's Pacific Northwest office to say that "the region is contemplating taking action with the NEB beyond filing a comment," and that they would discuss their legal options that day.

But David Allnutt, an EPA spokesman in Washington told The Globe in an interview last week the agency is not considering any further motions to the NEB at this time, although that could change. He said the EPA plans to file its comments with the NEB by the July 23, 2015, deadline.