Editorial: Grounded barge was a warning

As marine incidents go, the grounding of two barges on the beach along Dallas Road was a minor one. But it provides a glimpse of how difficult and challenging it can be to set things right when accidents happen along the coast.

And it shows that British Columbians are not being unduly paranoid when they raise concerns about the consequences of increasing oil-tanker traffic through their waters.

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The two barges were being towed by a tugboat on March 2 when high winds drove the barges ashore. The tug disconnected from the barges to avoid being dragged to the beach.

One barge, loaded with a crane and nearly 2,000 litres of diesel fuel, was removed from the shoreline at high tide the next day and towed to Point Hope shipyard in the Upper Harbour for repairs.

The other barge remained grounded on the beach off Dallas Road near Cook Street, and was finally freed and towed away two weeks later. Its cargo — scrap and construction debris from the Coho ferry terminal construction site — never posed any serious environmental danger.

Transport Canada worked with the barge’s owner and Seaspan to formulate a salvage plan to ensure the vessel was removed safely. The salvage work was delayed by strong winds and big waves.

It was a happy ending, with no harm done and plenty of entertainment provided for those who wanted an up-close look at a marine salvage operation. It was an opportunity to see that a barge that appears relatively small a couple of kilometres from the shore looks huge when it’s sitting on the beach right off a busy urban road.

And yet that barge was a piece of driftwood compared to the huge oil tankers that regularly sail past Victoria on the way from Vancouver’s harbour to the open ocean. Had one of those run aground near Dallas Road, it would have been a massive disaster. Removing a barge is child’s play compared to what would be needed to salvage a tanker.

The grounding of the barges happened in relatively sheltered waters, yet the work required to remove them shows it is not a small thing for humans to pit themselves against the ocean.

Although the B.C. coast has not experienced a major oil spill, the ghost of the Exxon Valdez lingers. The tanker ran onto rocks in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, spilling from 40 million to 140 million litres of crude oil, eventually covering 2,100 kilometres of coastline. The ill effects of that spill are still being felt a quarter of a century later.

The Valdez incident spurred improvements in procedures and safety standards for oil tankers, including a requirement for double hulls. A double hull would not have prevented the Valdez disaster, but the U.S. Coast Guard estimates it would have reduced the spill by 60 per cent.

The federal and B.C. governments are fond of touting “world-class” oil-spill response capability, but one wonders what that phrase means.

“Oil tankers have been moving safely and regularly along Canada’s West Coast since the 1930s,” says Transport Canada’s website on tanker safety and spill prevention.

But it would only take one tanker disaster to cause great harm to the environment and economy of Vancouver Island. That’s why British Columbians and other Canadians want to be assured every effort is made to keep our waters safe, and that requires more than a catchy slogan.

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