Monique Keiran: Large gap remains in oil-spill regulations

The B.C. government is seeking public comment on a proposed preparation and response system to protect the environment from land-based hazardous spills.

It’s all part of Premier Christy Clark’s five conditions for blessing any new pipeline development through the province.

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As such, the initiative focuses on industrial-scale transportation of heavy oil via pipeline or rail. However, if fully implemented, the system will benefit B.C. even if the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipeline projects do not proceed. The system applies to spills of any hazardous material that could affect any terrestrial environments, including lakes, wetlands, creeks and coastal shorelines.

This means it would apply to spills such as those that occur repeatedly along local salmon stream Colquitz Creek.

At least eight oil spills have contaminated the creek during the past four years. One of the worst was a 2011 leak from a Kenneth Street property. More than 1,000 litres of home-heating oil entered Swan Creek and washed into Colquitz Creek during the height of the salmon-spawning season, killing hundreds of migrating coho.

The spill was the result of damage to a pipe connecting an oil tank to the home. When the tank was filled for the winter season, the oil drained into the ground. From there, it seeped into groundwater and the storm-sewer system, and made its way into the creek.

Last December, another broken pipe at a home adjacent to the creek led to another spill. Although a passerby reported the leak immediately, enabling Saanich environmental workers to contain the spill to the bank, owners of the property are still dealing with the spill’s effects. Their backyard is torn apart and covered in tarps and plywood. Even a few weeks ago, contractors were using heavy equipment to remove contaminated soil and replace the stormwater drains.

Under B.C.’s Environmental Management Act, polluters are required to pay for spill cleanup and remediation. This includes homeowners whose properties are the source of pollution. Few home-insurance policies cover pollution, leaving property owners responsible for costs out of pocket.

Saanich recently put forth bylaw changes that will help prevent home-grown spills in the future. The proposed changes will require homeowners to remove old buried oil tanks once they are taken out of service. Currently, the municipality’s bylaw requires tanks no longer in service be made inert. The proposed bylaw amendment will not apply to those already-inert tanks.

Nor will it address the cause of the two Colquitz spills mentioned here — spills related to tanks still in use.

Nor will it address the cause of an Adelaide Street heating-oil spill in 2012. There, the oil company pumped oil into the basement of a house whose tank had long been disconnected. The tank’s service pipe, however, had been left in place.

Nor will the proposed bylaw change address buried home-oil tanks decommissioned and incorrectly made inert long ago. Many decommissioned tanks are believed to still contain oil. As they corrode underground, they may leak the oil into surrounding environments. Addressing these potential spill sources will be difficult.

Homeowners may be unaware of old tanks buried on their property, and scans meant to detect the hidden tanks can be unreliable. Nonetheless, current, past and even future homeowners remain responsible for the potential, buried risks.

There’s no denying the province’s proposed spill preparedness and response system moves us in the right direction for effectively preventing and responding to hazardous spills. Likewise, the amendment being put forward by Saanich is also a step in the right direction.

However, between the B.C. government’s big-picture plans and Saanich’s very local, very limited bylaw modifications, a large gap remains.

It gapes large enough for many hazardous spills to occur — like those into Colquitz Creek — endangering local waterways, killing fish and poisoning surrounding landscapes.

The B.C. Ministry of Environment is accepting comment (env.gov.bc.ca/epd/codes/spr_eep/response.htm) on the proposed spill preparedness and response system until June 26.

keiran_monique@rocketmail.com

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