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Caterpillar trucks working in the oil sands in Alberta, Canada.Handout/Caterpillar Inc.

The unit at Environment Canada that responds to oil-spill emergencies will be dramatically scaled back and most of its regional offices will be closed to meet the cost-cutting demands of the federal government.

"My entire program, which is about 60 people nationwide, got notices" saying their jobs could be eliminated, one of the employees who works for the Environmental Emergencies Program said Friday. "Everybody in the program is going to be vying for positions because the organization is being cut in half."

The cuts are part of sweeping reductions to the federal workforce that are being made to help the Conservative government tackle a multibillion-dollar deficit.

They come as the government is promoting a plan to transport bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to Asia by tanker – a process that critics say is fraught with the potential for spills.

Katie Terhune, the energy campaign manager with Living Oceans Society, a group that opposes B.C. tanker traffic, called the cuts to the Environmental Emergencies Program "irresponsible and incredibly negligent."

"If history shows us anything, it's that accidents happen," Ms. Terhune said. "When we have an oil spill on our coasts, the government should be there to respond and protect the public from harm. Instead they are doing the exact opposite by shutting down emergency response centres."

The staff in the Environmental Emergencies Program co-ordinate the cleanup of spills that occur within federal jurisdictions including waterways, first nations and federal buildings. They also provide technical advice when incidents occur elsewhere and collectively respond to more than 1,000 significant spills every year.

Environment Canada confirmed Friday that the regional offices in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Dartmouth, N.S. and St. John's will be consolidated into two locations – Gatineau, Que. and Montreal.

"Instead of six costly operations, [the Montreal]centre will have staff on call 24/7 and will be available to assist provinces and territories in managing spills or other emergencies when they request this service," the department said in an e-mail.

"Environment Canada will continue to provide the key scientific advice that is its unique contribution to emergency response, and neither Canadians nor the environment will be put at greater risk," said the officials, adding that, even now, staff members are not always dispatched to the site of an emergency.

But the program's employees say visiting a site is often the most efficient way to co-ordinate the cleanup.

Staff members who attended a meeting on Thursday afternoon where the details of the cuts were unveiled say they asked Environment Canada managers what will happen if there is a spill off the coast of British Columbia. "We didn't get an answer," one of them said.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said the decision to scale back the program is outrageous.

"To be closing the office [in Vancouver]when they are also relying on the office in their quite feeble attempt to say oil tankers can travel safely in and out of Kitimat [B.C.]and on the B.C. coast," said Ms. May, "is to put the lie to any suggestion that they are concerned with the environmental impacts of exporting fossil fuels."

Ian Jones, a biology professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland whose studies have focused on the ecology of sea birds, said it seems the federal Conservative government doesn't want to have much to do with environmental issues.

"This is a very important part of Environment Canada's mandate in relation to responding to environmental emergencies," Prof. Jones said of the Environmental Emergencies Program. "This group will be missed."

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