Toxic Fuel Spill in Vancouver’s English Bay

The city of Vancouver and the surrounding waters of English Bay, Burrard Inlet, and the Straight of Georgia are on the unceded Coast Salish territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Investigators have confirmed the grain ship Marathassa was the source of the 2,700 litres of Bunker C Fuel that spilled into Vancouver’s English Bay on April 8th, 2015. A sailor first reported an oil slick to Port Metro Vancouver at about 5 p.m. The industry-funded Western Canada Marine Response Corp. was not called until 8 p.m., and it took four hours to establish a boom around the grain ship. City officials were not informed of the slick until 6 a.m. the next day, 13 hours after the spill.

Oil Spill pic1

The oil slick on the shores of Vancouver’s beaches does not go unnoticed. Photo courtesy of [].

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson initially criticized the Coast Guard and their response times, calling efforts “totally inadequate.” He said, “The citizens of Vancouver are very frustrated. We don’t know what the total impact will be on our environment. We don’t know how much of that toxic substance sunk to the bottom and will be a long-term hazard in our waters.” Mayor Robertson softened his stance days later. Speaking at a news conference, Robertson admitted he’s happy with the work that’s been done so far. “The mistakes and gaps happened early on, and there’s been a big improvement since then,” he said. “It’s good to see that there’s been a strong response these last two days on the clean-up side. Crews have been in action. I don’t think we see any signs in the water of the oil spill.” Robertson reiterated that Vancouver residents deserved to know about the spill and the response to it in “real time.”

BC Premier Christy Clark blasted the Coast Guard’s response to the oil spill, saying the six hour delay in placing booms around the leaking tanker and the 13 hour delay notifying the city showed a shortage of “good judgment” and “nimbleness.” Clark said she felt it may be time for the Canadian Coast Guard to hand over the responsibility for leading the organization of oil-spill cleanups to the BC government. “Somebody needs to do a better job of protecting the coast, and the Coast Guard has not done it,” she said. “If that means that in the future the Coast Guard is relieved of their lead in this and starts taking direction from the province, then perhaps that’s a better way to do it, because we have a lot of experience, as you know, in working in a unified way.”

University of BC Fisheries Centre professor Rashid Sumaila (also an ocean and environmental specialist) explained in the Vancouver Sun that the response to the bunker oil spill in English Bay falls short of the world-class standards that Canadians expected. “This is such a disappointment,” said Sumaila. “Clearly not world-class.”

“What really hits me is that happens in the heat of the debate,” Sumaila says. “I thought they’d be much more prepared and the shipping companies would be extremely cautious not to let this happen. For me, this is a huge shock, actually. Getting to a spill quickly must be a priority in order to minimize the potential for the pollutant to spread and sink, which hinders collection. The lesson is that spills do, can, and will happen. Technology plays a great role, but it can’t completely solve the problem. It only goes so far.”

A significant contributing factor to the long response time is the federal government’s closure of the Coast Guard station in Vancouver in 2012. Had the station remained open, the response to the spill may have taken as few as six minutes. The Port of Metro Vancouver is Canada’s busiest port, but the nearest Coast Guard station is currently an hour away, south of the city. The Liberals say Harper’s marine safety cuts are putting BC’s economy and environment at risk and that a Liberal government will re-open the Vancouver Coast Guard station. “I used to live in this neighbourhood,” said Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. “I know that any spills of this nature are of serious concern to British Columbians and all Canadians. Stephen Harper’s cuts to marine safety resources and the closure of Vancouver’s Kitsilano Coast Guard Base each undermine our ability to respond to spills like this. A new Liberal government will reopen a full-service Coast Guard station in Vancouver and reinvest in marine safety and oil spill response capacity on the BC coast.”

Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair also said that an NDP government would also reopen the station if elected in October. Harper’s Conservatives have cut Transport Canada’s funding for marine safety programs by over 27% since 2009, decreasing response capacity even as marine traffic continues to increase through Vancouver and along the BC coast. Cuts in BC alone have resulted in closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station, the closure of three BC Marine Communication and Traffic Centres, and cuts to oil spill response coordination resources.

“Marine safety experts are highlighting how Stephen Harper’s closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard base had a profoundly negative impact on response capabilities following this spill, and the consequences for Vancouver’s local waters and shorelines are deeply alarming,” said Dr. Hedy Fry, Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre. “We are incredibly thankful for the service of the first responders and crews who have worked to contain the damage, and Justin Trudeau’s commitment will help ensure that Vancouver’s economy and environment will never again be similarly put at risk.”