Who Is Responsible for Cleaning up Oil Spills on Canada’s West Coast

Cleaning up oil spills

By Kevin Gardner,
President of Western Canadian Marine Response Corp.

Western Canada Marine Response Corp. (WCMRC) is the only Transport Canada-certified marine spill response organization on Canada’s West Coast. Our job under the Canada Shipping Act is to be prepared to respond to marine spills along all 27,000 km of B.C.’s coastline, and to mitigate impacts when a spill occurs. This includes the protection of wildlife, economic, cultural and environmental sensitivities. On average, we respond to 20 spills each year.
In Canada, marine spill response falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Transport Canada oversees the regime, setting the regulatory structure, managing the certification program for response organizations, and enforcing standards and legislation. Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans ensure the science supporting the regime reflects the realities of the products traveling over our land and through our waters.
WCMRC maintains the infrastructure, equipment, bases, personnel and management resources to protect coastal B.C. from oil spills. Our team regularly tests and implements new equipment and technologies. This includes training in advanced recovery techniques, commissioning purpose-built vessels and field-testing new equipment, such as high-capacity skimmers, advanced sweep systems, infrared cameras and aerostat surveillance balloons.

Who pays for spill response?
The Canadian spill response regime was created in 1995 to enable the shipping and oil industries to respond to their own oil spills. Built on the polluter-pays principle, the regime is based on a partnership between the federal government and industry. The government provides the legislative and regulatory structure and oversees industry’s preparedness and response activities. As the creator of the risk, the shipping and oil industries bear the responsibility to respond to a spill and are always liable for spill response costs.
WCMRC has over 2,300 members who, under the Canada Shipping Act, are required to have an arrangement with a certified response organization. Members are required to pay an annual preparedness fee to ensure they will receive WCMRC’s response services, including equipment and supplies, in the event they pollute.

How are we preparing for an increase in tanker traffic?
With the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion scheduled to begin operations in 2020, WCMRC is implementing a $150 million enhancement program. These enhancements will cut response times in half, double the existing federal planning standards, and significantly increase response capabilities along B.C.’s South Coast through investment in new equipment and response bases.
The enhancements include the creation of six new response bases along our shipping lanes, doubling WCMRC’s fleet to more than 80 vessels, and adding more than 120 personnel to response crews. These dedicated resources will be staged at strategic coastal locations in the Salish Sea, and will be available to the entire marine community—not only to tankers calling on the Trans Mountain terminal.

Can response organizations clean-up diluted bitumen?
If a diluted bitumen spill happens on Canada’s West Coast, is it possible to clean it up? Yes, it is. We know that because we have already successfully responded to a diluted bitumen spill in these waters. It’s what we continue to train and prepare for every day.
In 2007, WCMRC was activated to respond to an oil spill in Burrard Inlet after a backhoe ruptured a pipeline beneath Barnet Highway in Burnaby. The pipeline rupture primarily released oil on-land, but approximately 100,000 litres of diluted bitumen drained into a network of storm drains that empty into the Inlet. The incident was the largest spill WCMRC has cleaned up on Canada’s West Coast—it was a diluted bitumen spill and 95 per cent of the product was recovered.
Diluted bitumen density is lighter than the density of seawater, similar to most other medium to heavy crude oils. This means diluted bitumen floats when spilled in the ocean. This was our experience during the Burnaby spill and has also been confirmed in numerous tests, including a 2016 Natural Resources Canada study which concluded diluted bitumen would float in sea water for up to three or four weeks, even in rough conditions.

Plan Today. Prepare for Tomorrow.
The singular tenet of spill response across the globe is to mitigate the damage to the environment by ensuring a swift and effective cleanup operation that removes the oil as quickly as possible. Responders employ a variety of detection and recovery systems to protect sensitive areas and shorelines, clean up the product, and protect people and wildlife from harm.
There hasn’t been a single spill incident involving a tanker on Canada’s West Coast in the 40-plus years WCMRC has been operating here. And while every oil spill is different, what never changes is the dedication to preparedness by response organizations, governments, First Nations and communities. In Canada we are committed to ensuring the highest standards of marine response are employed in every operation undertaken. Research has reinforced WCMRC’s experience and our existing strategies and tactics to protect Canada’s West Coast and the people and wildlife that live here. If oil spills again, we are prepared.