Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Spill response not ‘magic bullet’; mitigating impact of oil key goal

The waters between North Pender Island and Saturna Island became the site of an imagined crude-oil spill this week as Kinder Morgan’s contractor prepared for a big one.
The MJ Green skimming vessel in front of a yellow containment boom plys waters of Plumper Bay.


The waters between North Pender Island and Saturna Island became the site of an imagined crude-oil spill this week as Kinder Morgan’s contractor prepared for a big one.

About 90 personnel worked aboard 20 vessels to practise cleaning up 2,500 tonnes of oil, or about 17,500 barrels, in Plumper Sound.

It’s an important exercise, even as critics point out that no level of preparation will protect the coast from a major spill of diluted bitumen — one of the fuels carried by the Trans Mountain pipeline, whose behaviour in coastal conditions is still being studied.

The drill was practice for Western Canadian Marine Response Corporation, which must do on-water simulations once every two years to maintain its Transport Canada certification.

Previous exercises have occurred in Howe Sound and Vancouver Harbour.

“These are the vessels that would be deployed from Vancouver and our base in Duncan to respond to that size of a spill,” said WCMRC spokesman Michael Lowry, aboard a water taxi observing the exercise.

He pointed to three types of vessels working Wednesday: skimming vessels that recover product, response barges that hold equipment and store recovered oil, and work boats that carry booms, help put skimmers on the water and work at shoreline protection.

As part of $150 million promised by Kinder Morgan if the pipeline is built, WCMRC will build six new response bases, including a 24/7 base in Sidney.

It is also working to prove it can clean up 20,000 tonnes of oil in 10 days — an increase over the 10,000 tonnes of oil in 10 days required by Transport Canada.

One tank on a tanker has a 10,000-tonne capacity, so the requirement would be for a situation like a collision, where two tankers dump into the sea.

“We have equipment now to do 26,000 tonnes, so it’s not a huge step, certainly the equipment is in place. There will always be factors beyond our control — weather is certainly a huge influence on spill response, just as it would be on a forest fire. If you’ve got really high waves, you’ll have to pause the operation,” Lowry said.

He said it’s important not to think of spill clean-up as a “magic bullet.”

“There’s certainly going to be impacts, let’s not pretend that’s not going to happen. Our role is to mitigate those impacts and make sure we can protect those areas as much as possible.”

One way the company is doing that is by mapping sensitive areas in advance. That includes everything from eel-grass beds to archeological sites. About 400 such areas have been mapped along the coast, so that responders can target boom deployment there early.

The company also has experience cleaning up diluted bitumen. In 2007, it cleaned up about 90 per cent of the heavy fuel that spilled through storm drains into Burrard Inlet, after a backhoe accidentally ruptured the existing Trans Mountain pipeline in Burnaby. Factors such as weather and location — it was a sheltered area — worked in their favour, he said.

Recovery rates for diluted bitumen spills are typically estimated at only 10 to 15 per cent.

When the federal government issued Kinder Morgan its environmental certificate for the project, it added 37 conditions to the National Energy Board’s approval.

That included studying the behaviour of diluted bitumen under fresh and saltwater conditions.

“There’s still a big debate about what will happen to dilbit [in case of a spill]. Will it sink or float?” said independent oil-spill consultant Gerald Graham.

Graham said drills are especially important, since big spills rarely happen.

“They don’t have many they have to respond to, so it increases the importance of regular drills — both table-top exercises and on-the-water drills,” Graham said.

The Canadian Coast Guard, which participated in WCMRC’s simulation, also conducts its own drills. Because of its larger fleet, the coast guard would likely lead response and direct companies like WCMRC, in the event of a major spill, he said.

Graham said exercises can be improved by involving all of the people and players who would be involved if there were a real spill.

“There’s a real need to cast a very wide net, in terms of the parties involved,” he said.

When the coast guard practises, for example, he said it isn’t required to involve the private sector or people like himself, who would be called upon in the event of a real spill.

“One of the areas that is woefully lacking is the issue of training volunteers,” Graham said. “It’s a big gap in our spill response plan for all of our coasts, really. And that is: How would you train and equip the possibly hundreds and thousands of volunteers who show up on the beaches, whether you like it or not, in the event of a catastrophic oil spill?”

In 2007, 1.2 million volunteers showed up with good intentions to help clean the 10,500 tonnes of crude oil spills along 400 kilometres of shoreline in North Korea caused by the Hebei Spirit. While encouraged by the government, it posed a logistical nightmare for responders.

The sheer numbers made it impossible to conduct meaningful basic operational or safety training, a paper published by the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation said.

Beyond logistical concerns, the hazardous materials in oil pose a health risk for the volunteers.

“These are the kinds of things that a person like myself, who is trained to lead the response to a major tanker spill, we lose sleep over.”

Lowry said if a spill requiring public involvement occurred, there would be in-time training and they would become part of a paid workforce.

Some training is provided to community leaders and First Nations in shoreline assessment.

[email protected]




Protection boom

WCMRC is mapping sensitive areas such as eel-grass beds, archeological sites and critical infrastructure such as water treatment plants. They will appear on a digital map that responders can refer to when deploying protection booms.


Sweep system

NOFI Current Buster VI

A sweep system that collects oil in conditions up to five knots. Conventional booms lose oil at about 0.7 knots. The system includes debris nets, wave dampeners and splash-over cover, plus temporary storage for about 35 tonnes of oil.


Skimming vessel G.M. Penman

One of five 65-foot ocean-class oil spill response vessels, built by Rozema Boat

• Works in Washington

• Responded to the 110,000-litre spill from sunken tug Nathan E. Stewart of Bella Bella

• Top speed of 26 knots

• Deployable boom arms for skimming at speed of 1.5 knots

• 3,000-gallon fuel storage

• Two Lamor brush skimmers, which can skim 32.8 tonnes per hour with storage capacity of 30 tonnes

• Equipped with forward-looking infrared camera, which uses thermal imaging to view oil in the dark


Skimming vessel M.J. Green

13.69-metre response vessel

• Top speed of 26 knots

• Equipped with forward-looking infrared camera, which uses thermal imaging to view oil in the dark

• Carries grooved disc module and LORI brush module, for wide range of oil


• Fuel is transfered to a barge or storage vessel once at capacity


Aerial surveillance balloon Hawk Owl

15 cubic-metre wireless lookout system

• Capable of infrared, particulate and gas monitoring

• 360-degree field of view

• Designed to support containment and recovery operations for oil spill response operations and reduce response vessel operating costs

• Five-megapixel/1080p camera



A spill-response barge could be used to deliver equipment and store collected fuel, in case of a major tanker spill.