B.C.’s largest oil-spill cleanup vessel hit a sandbar on Sunday on its way from Esquimalt to the Vancouver news conference announcing the federal government’s “world-class tanker safety system.” Accidents happen, but the irony is too rich to ignore.
So is the obvious lesson: Our coastline is a hazardous place for ships and mariners. Disaster is always one human mistake away.
In the desperate hope of changing the minds of the many British Columbians who oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver on Tuesday echoed the words of Premier Christy Clark, whose five conditions for backing the pipeline include a “world-leading” safety and spill-response plan.
The federal plan gives us little confidence that it would prevent spills.
The government emphasized that only double-hulled tankers would be allowed to operate in our coastal waters. But only 50 single-hulled tankers remain in the world, and none have been allowed to operate here for years, Green party MP Elizabeth May said. The International Maritime Organization is banning them as of 2015.
The briefing notes remind us that the Exxon Valdez, which ran aground and released 42 million litres of oil along 1,800 kilometres of shoreline, was a single-hulled vessel. Even a double hull, however, won’t keep the oil inside if a ship’s captain runs it hard enough into a rock or another ship.
May points out that in 2010 off Singapore, the double-hulled Bunga Kelana 3 spilled 2.9 million litres. And in 1992, the double-hulled Aegean Sea spilled 76 million litres off northern Spain, almost twice the Exxon Valdez spill.
More than 11,000 people and $2 billion were thrown at the Exxon Valdez cleanup, but only about eight per cent of the oil was recovered at sea. That’s standard for most cleanups, said environmental chemist Jeffrey Short, a leader in studies of the after-effects of the spill for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Fifty per cent of the oil ended up on the shore, and more than 20 years later, crude oil was still welling up in the intertidal zones of Prince William Sound, he said in 2010.
Cleaning up the bitumen that would be shipped from the Kitimat terminus of the Northern Gateway pipeline could be even more difficult. In promising to do more research on spill cleanup, the government admitted there is a lot we don’t know about removing bitumen from the ocean.
The pipeline companies insist it would behave like regular crude, which is bad enough, but environmental groups say it is heavier and would sink faster.
The government’s promises of more aerial surveillance and a new coast guard incident-command system would spot spills and handle the response more efficiently, but once the oil is in the water, all we can do is try to minimize the damage.
Since cleanups are minimally effective, preventing spills is of paramount importance. The plan promises annual inspections of all tankers, experienced pilots with knowledge of the coast, better traffic control by designating Kitimat a public port, better charts and markers on the sea routes and technology to give ships real-time updates on navigation and weather.
All those things will help, but they don’t change the fact that a supertanker under the control of fallible human beings is up to 344 metres long, and its stopping distance is measured in nautical miles. Guiding those ships through coastal channels is dangerous, and response vessels would take many hours to reach any spill.
Burrard Cleaner No. 9 freed itself quickly from the sandbar. A supertanker in Douglas Channel would not be as lucky.
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