Column: Lessons to be learned from Vancouver fuel spill

Yes, the oil spill was serious. But the safety record off our coast is apparently pretty good

What event is guaranteed to get politicians crawling all over each other to be the best at the blame game?

An oil spill of course.

Last week’s debacle over the blame game of who was the greatest laggard at communication and clean up began when the cargo vessel MV Marathassa leaked some 2,700 litres of oil into English Bay.

The vessel was carrying grain and was on its maiden voyage. It is owned by the Greek-based company Alassia NewShips Management Inc. whose managers not only apologized profusely for the incident but took full responsibility for the cost of a full and professional clean up.

Apparently a mechanical problem with the ship’s piping system valves led to oil leaking into the duct keel and a secondary problem caused that oil to be accidentally discharged.

Within 36 hours, 80 per cent of the oil had been contained while some of the balance managed to make it to shore in ugly black globs that coated some of the beaches and a number of seabirds.

The spill was first noticed by a passing sailboat operator when he saw a sheen of oil on the water around 5 p.m. Wednesday of last week. The Coast Guard was alerted and they apparently got into play around 8:30 p.m. with the first boom to absorb the oil in place by midnight.

But in the domino effect of who to inform and in what order, some phone calls got missed, notably the need to let the Mayor of Vancouver know what was going on.

As that slick oil got contained in booms, all levels of politicians light their hair on fire with it. Their fingers were pretty functional considering all the pointing they managed to accomplish.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson unloaded on the provincial and federal governments while Premier Christy Clark unloaded on the Coast Guard for their perceived slacko response to the clean-up. Industry Minister James Moore got defensive, commenting that it was unhelpful to have politicians spreading misinformation. Robertson was choked the City was not notified of the spill for 12 hours.

Clark’s Coast Guard comment was garnering some political hay. She and many others are still smarting from the federal government’s abrupt closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station two years ago. It was a bad move then and it remains a bad move now.

In the apparent broken chain of communication, Clark blamed a shortage of good judgment and nimbleness, stressing that there needs to be a better way of doing this. She floated the idea that maybe the Coast Guard should take direction from the province. But that’s not going to happen any time soon. What really floated up in the public’s consciousness was that no level of government seemed to have a plan for coordination and cooperation.

Yes, the oil spill was serious. But the safety record off our coast is apparently pretty good. According to Transport Canada, the only major oil spill in the last 20 years in our waters was the Queen of the North ferry sinking in 2006. It took with it 240 tonnes of oil. In 2011, there were some 18,500 inbound commercial vessels all loaded with goods and in that same year 2.2 million tonnes of oil were shipped uneventfully out of Vancouver.

By the numbers, as of April 14, 150 people in the Unified Command are involved in the English Bay clean-up, one oiled duck was euthanized, two are in care and 30 are being monitored, the shoreline team has inspected 64 kilometres and 6 kilometres are being cleaned, surface oil remains at 0.2 litres, and there has been zero impact on public health and safety.

Not bad so far, considering.

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