B.C. and Ottawa still sparring over ‘gaps’ in oil spill response plans
VICTORIA — Canada’s fisheries minister says he’s doesn’t know about the “gaps” B.C. keeps saying exist in Ottawa’s oil spill response plan, though the province insists it has been highlighting them for more than a year.
Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said his government doesn’t know why Premier John Horgan again cited “gaps in the ocean protection plan” at a news conference Tuesday. Horgan was responding to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s re-approval for the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from Alberta to B.C.
“To be honest with you, I’m not sure we fully understand what gaps the province is referring to,” Wilkinson said Wednesday. “But we have said to them repeatedly we are more than open to have a conversation.”
Wilkinson said he has a good relationship with the B.C. government, monthly discussions with Horgan and talked to provincial officials on Wednesday. Yet, the “gaps” remain ill-defined, he said.
“If B.C. can more clearly articulate to us the specific issues they are concerned about and some of the ideas they
Ottawa just finished a third phase of consultations with First Nations communities, in which 60 officials from 13 federal departments held 402 meetings with Aboriginal groups with the goal to amend the Trans Mountain plans where possible to address their concerns.
When asked how it’s possible the federal government could still be unclear about B.C. concerns regarding oil spill response after a year of intense B.C. community consultations, Wilkinson pointed to Premier Horgan’s longtime political opposition to the pipeline.
“I think the B.C. government has made no secret of the fact that it has opposed this project,” he said. “As they said during the election campaign, they were intending to use all the tools in the tool box. I think there is an increasing recognition on the part of the premier and his government that the pipeline rests in federal jurisdiction.”
B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman said he’s surprised Ottawa refuses to acknowledge B.C.’s concerns about marine response after almost two years of meetings among ministers, deputy minsters and provincial officials, as well concerns put into letters to federal departments.
“I honestly can’t explain why Minister Wilkinson would say they don’t know or are not clear,” said Heyman. “We were pretty clear in our written submissions.”
B.C. has identified five gaps.
They include wanting a “transparent and comprehensive emergency towing strategy that has a clear requirement regarding response times to ensure that towing capacity is available,” said Heyman. “We think that should be completed and it hasn’t been and it’s not a condition of the recent decision.”
The province also “needs some clarity on enhanced cost recovery provisions in the event of a spill” so that First Nations, local communities and the provincial government get “guaranteed fair and timely access to funds” and don’t have to wait for lengthy federal reimbursement procedures, said Heyman. He pointed to the Heiltsuk Nation’s frustrations getting compensation from Ottawa after helping to contain the Nathan E. Stewart diesel spill near Bella Bella in 2016.
Two other B.C. concerns were partly addressed by Ottawa as part of its approval announcement — support for co-developing community response plans to a spill in specific areas, and funding to train and purchase marine spill equipment for local communities and First Nations.
But Heyman said that doesn’t go far enough and B.C. wants specific geographic response plans instead of regional plans, and a long-term commitment to Ottawa’s equipment funding instead of the current five-year promise.
B.C. also wants more transparent information from Ottawa on the types and volumes of substances being transported by rail, pipeline and marine vessels.
The federal government has promised a $1.6 billion oceans protection plan that includes new Canadian Coast Guard ships to respond to oil spills faster and with more on-scene environmental cleanup tools. It also reopened the Kitsilano Coast Guard base, installed six new radar stations, is mapping of high-traffic commercial waterways, and will spend more than $220 million to protect endangered killer whales by reducing vessel noises, expand buffer zones and restricting chinook salmon fishing.
New measures announced Tuesday with the pipeline approval include real-time marine information for First Nations communities, fish habitat restoration and long-term monitoring of the Salish Sea.
B.C.’s continued concerns are echoed by environmental groups.
Critics of Canada’s “world class” spill response often point to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation’s estimate that even in ideal conditions in oceans around the world, only 10 to 15 per cent of spilled oil is likely to be recovered.
“The concept of world-class spill response is somewhat meaningless,” said Jay Ritchlin of the David Suzuki Foundation.
Ritchlin said the foundation has modelled local winds, waves and currents and has concerns that a spill would drift up the Burrard Inlet into sensitive bird habitat, and into the Georgia Strait where orcas and the chinook on which they feed would be affected.
New federal rules introduced this month to protect southern resident killer whales off B.C.’s coast may not go far enough to protect that population, and an increase in tanker traffic will only increase their stress, Ritchlin said.
Meantime, he sees a number of potential threats: “The ongoing presence of additional ships, the noise they create, the possibility for hitting the whales and, of course, the very rare but incredibly catastrophic chance of an actual major spill.”
Chief Leah George-Wilson of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation is troubled by continuing scientific debate about the behaviour of diluted bitumen, or dilbit, when it is spilled in water.
A 2016 study funded by the federal government found that dilbit doesn’t sink as readily as conventional oil when spilled in fresh water. But a 2015 report by the U.S. National Academy of Science showed that dilbit tended to quickly sink after being spilled in fresh water.
“I think they don’t have enough science to understand how dilbit will react in salt or fresh water,” George-Wilson said.
“We don’t know how long it’s going to stay suspended, when it will sink. If it sinks, it’s going to be harder to clean up. If it impacts the Fraser River estuary, that’s huge.”
George-Wilson said Canadians should be worried about how increased tanker noise might affect orcas off B.C.’s coast. She pointed to recent orca sightings in the Burrard Inlet, where the herring population has recovered. Howe Sound experienced a similar return of herring and, subsequently, orcas, in recent years.
“It’s amazing,” Georga-Wilson said. “It’s showing us that the ecosystem is still viable, and we can still save it.”
Sarah Beuhler, a spokeswoman for Protect the Inlet, is also concerned about sinking dilbit.
“Regular crude oil — just light crude oil — (cleanup) has a 10 to 15 per cent success rate only,” she said. “That’s what they’re trumpeting as world class, and that’s not good enough for our coast.”
Beuhler said that beyond the environmental concerns a spill would bring, 100,000 tourism jobs and Vancouver’s brand as a green city depend on having clean beaches.
She described the use of booms during cleanups as “theatre,” given their ineffectiveness in poor weather.
“It dissipates, it sinks, it’s gone,” she said.
“I know the B.C. government is supposed to come out with new (oil spill regulations) soon but, frankly, until somebody can prove that dilbit can be cleaned up instead of sitting down there and poisoning the water for hundreds of years, we’re not moved.”