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Friday, May 4, 2012

Grenville Channel oil spill highlights need to keep North Coast Tanker-Free

Sheila Muxlow is the new Energy Campaign Manager at Living Oceans Society.

I knew when I took on my job with Living Oceans Society that I would be expected to hit the ground running and within less than two weeks my assumptions have proven true. It is becoming clear that I am joining in on a long time legacy of research and advocacy to protect the Pacific coast at a time when the threats to marine ecosystems and communities are on the rise. During my first week, the Harper government gutted the environmental laws and services that protect our air, water and fisheries, and now this week there is an oil spill in the Grenville Channel from a decaying shipwreck.


Testament to their role as stewards of the coast, it was the Gitga'at Nation of Hartley Bay who raised the alarm regarding an oil spill of between two and five miles long and 200 feet wide inside the Grenville Channel. The source of the spill is thought to be the carcass of the USAT Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski U.S. Army Transport ship which sank in 1946. In 2006 the federal government promised to clean up the wreck and remove the bunker fuel, but failed to follow through on their commitments.

Frustratingly, this isn't the only example of the federal government's failure to effectively address consequences from shipping accidents along the Pacific coast. A 2010 analysis by the Canadian Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development found that the emergency management plans of the Canadian Coast Guard and Environment Canada (the lead government agencies responsible for responding to a spill) do not provide adequate national preparedness. Furthermore, the B.C. and Canadian governments both have jurisdiction in coastal waters yet their response plans are incompatible and do not allow these groups to work together effectively.

Living Oceans Society became intimately familiar with the failures of Canada's preparedness and response regimes when a tanker truck toppled off a barge into Robson Bight in 2007. Neither the federal nor provincial governments were prepared to deal with the ensuing pollution and debris. At the time, the Coast Guard offered assurances that the truck's cargo of diesel fuel would have risen to the surface and evaporated. Living Oceans Society wasn't convinced and it wasn't until we took the initiative to organize an exploration of the wreck site—with the support of people worldwide—that the governments finally came forward to discover the truck was intact and mount a salvage operation.

When it sunk in 1946, the U.S. Army Transport ship was carrying approximately 714,000 liters of Bunker C fuel, an amount of oil capable of creating a slick nearly 100 kilometers long. This oil submerged in a rusting hulk poses a significant health concern for local ecosystems and communities. Yet is a mere thimbleful compared to the enormous cargos of tar sands crude that mega tankers would carry from Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Project. Those massive vessels would each carry over 250 million liters of diluted bitumen through the Inside Passage.


Diluted bitumen is a noxious soup of hydrocarbons and chemicals. When spilled it not only poses a risk to human health, but can accumulate in the environment and our food chains. Bitumen that washes up on shore and is exposed to sunlight tends to form a dense, sticky substance that is difficult to remove from shorelines and inevitably creates a toxic legacy for generations to come. Because of these unique qualities of this toxic substance, the economic and environmental costs of a spill are significantly higher than one involving conventional oil. A case in point is the cleanup of the Kalamazoo River bitumen spill in 2010. Originally it was expected to be completed within two months, however now it will likely continue through 2012, costing at least $700 million U.S.

But back to the case in point of the Grenville Oil Spill. As Arnold Clifton, Chief Councillor of the Gitga'at Nation stated, “This incident definitely raises questions about the federal government's ability to guard against oil spills and to honour its clean-up obligations. As a result, our nation has serious concerns about any proposal to have tankers travel through our coastal waters, including the Enbridge proposal.”

He is right, of course. The federal government lacks the ability to effectively live up to its responsibilities and commitments to address existing pollution problems along the coast. In light of further cut backs, how can they possible address the increased risk associated with the transport of tar sands from the Northern Gateway pipeline?

They can't, and no matter how hard they might try to convince us otherwise, if we take the time to reflect on the potential devastation caused by shipping tar sands in tankers there is only one logical answer: To keep the Pacific coast tanker-free.

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