Esquimalt’s expenses for ongoing oil-spill cleanup top $50,000

Esquimalt has already spent more than $50,000 cleaning up an oil spill that contaminated sensitive ecosystems in Gorge Creek, says the township’s director of engineering and public works.

Jeff Miller said the final price tag will depend on how long the cleanup lasts, the amount of equipment deployed and whether crews encounter any unexpected issues.

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“I can’t tell you what the final number would be yet, but we’re keeping an eye on it,” he said. “We should have a better idea in a week or two where our final costs are.”

The spill was traced last week to an above-ground home heating-fuel tank that leaked into both the ground and the storm-water system.

Miller said investigators are still trying to determine how the leak occurred.

“I haven’t seen any reports yet, but I’m suspecting that [the leak] was between the tank and the connection to the house,” he said. “Sometimes those connections have the ability to leak.”

He said that it’s too soon to say what, if any, ramifications there will be for the homeowner — whether they will face penalties or have to pay cleanup costs.

“That’s the discussion we’re engaged in right now, so I can’t really comment any further on it, because it’s a bylaw matter that hasn’t been resolved yet.”

In terms of the amount of fuel that might have leaked from the tank, Miller said that, too, remains under investigation.

“We’re working with the homeowner trying to determine how much fuel has been delivered, how much was left in the tank. I don’t have a hard number yet on that.”

In the meantime, cleanup efforts continue. The township has hired outside consultants to assist with the work and a number of booms are strung across the tidal creek that runs beside Esquimalt Gorge Park and flows into the Gorge Waterway.

The equipment will likely remain in place for one to two more weeks.

“They’re pulling off a fair amount of the sheen that’s remaining,” Miller said. “We’ve intercepted it at the source and we’re catching a lot of it before it enters the system.”

Heavy rains in recent days have complicated the work, however, by forcing more water out of the storm system and into the booms. “If the volume becomes too much, there’s a potential that some of the sheen — that hydrocarbon — might sneak underneath the booms,” he said. “But we do have our booms set up so that that should be minimized.”

In addition to the cleanup efforts, the township has hired a consultant to assess the impact of the spill on wildlife in the area. Miller said he hasn’t received a final report yet, but preliminary indications are that “they’re not seeing any significant impact.”

He said that the spill should serve as a cautionary tale for residents and homeowners about the importance of checking to make sure their heating systems are in good working order.

Calvin Sandborn, of the Environment Law Centre at the University of Victoria, said the incident should also serve as a reminder to the provincial and local governments about what they could be doing to prevent such spills.

The law centre issued a report on oil tanks in 2012 and Sandborn said its findings remain relevant today.

“I think there’s still a need for those recommendations that we made back in 2012 to be reconsidered and for there to be a more rigorous approach to these tanks,” Sandborn said. “A lot of this stuff needs to happen provincially.”

The report recommended, among other things, that governments consider:

• Making it a requirement that tanks be registered and tagged as being in good shape, and prohibiting companies from filling tanks without a proper tag.

• Creating a mandatory inspection system.

• Taking legislative steps to make oil companies absolutely liable for any spills from a tank they fill and requiring them to carry insurance for that liability.

• Using a surcharge on fuel to establish a public insurance fund to pay for spills from the properties of homeowners who have self-identified as having a tank.

In an update of that report released last year, the law centre underlined the urgency of the issue.

“Home-heating oil is very toxic and has the ability to kill fish and other marine life once it enters water bodies,” says the report, Cleaning Up CRD Waterways and Beaches.

“Importantly, small quantities of oil can pollute large areas; for example, one cup of oil could pollute a volume as large as an Olympic pool.”

The report noted that the existing legislation tends to be more punitive than preventative. “Measures must be taken to prevent oil spills, not punish those responsible for oil spills after the fact.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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