Island Voices: Oil cleanup near Island impossible much of the year

If you are wondering whether our coast is ready for an oil spill, you might like to know that responding to one at the mouth of the Juan de Fuca Strait, near Port Renfrew, would be impossible or severely limited 198 days of the year.

As part of the National Energy Board’s re-review of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Georgia Strait Alliance examined the physical limits of booms, which are foundational pieces of equipment to contain and deflect spilled oil. We compared their limits to wind, wave and currents along the tanker route, and found that responding to a spill on our coast is likely to result in a significant amount of oil being left in our marine environment.

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Most of the booms used to respond to spills along the tanker route are meant for protected water areas, such as harbours. They aren’t built to withstand the currents we find along the route, with 87 per cent of them failing at about 1.5 knots (2.8 km/h). Even the most effective high-current booms on our coast fail at four knots. Meanwhile, in some locations, such as Race Rocks on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, currents can exceed seven knots.

Strong wind and waves carry oil over or under booms, sometimes even breaking them. In the heaviest weather, booms can’t be deployed. Wind and waves surpass boom capabilities for days, sometimes weeks, at a time during the fall and winter at the mouth of the Juan de Fuca Strait. If an oil spill were to happen during one of these periods, our coast would likely be awash in oil.

When the tug Nathan E. Stewart sank in Heiltsuk Nation territory in the northern part of the province in 2016, weather conditions suspended spill cleanup for 11 of 40 days of recovery efforts recovered 1,400 litres of oily water and waste, leaving 110,000 litres of fuel and lubricant in the surrounding waters. The spill contaminated shellfish harvesting areas, forcing the Heiltsuk to halt food and commercial harvests, as well as cultural practices.

Unfortunately, this level of failure is common. The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation estimates that 10 to 15 per cent of spilled oil is recovered, with the weather limits of spill equipment being a major factor. Spills are complex and difficult to manage — and their repercussions last for decades. We’re 30 years on from the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, which saw the loss of thousands of local jobs and the functional extinction of a pod of orcas, and oil is still being found on beaches in Prince William Sound.

An outcome such as this isn’t one that the people who live and work in the Salish Sea area should have to navigate. The federal government can say no to the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline and protect our coast from the risk of a future spill.

The government’s rationale for the pipeline expansion is unravelling: The NEB acknowledges there would be devastating impacts to southern resident orcas; Alberta’s carbon tax and oil-production cap are on the chopping block with the election of Premier Jason Kenney; and oil-spill response is nowhere near being “world-class.” The NEB recommends reviewing nearly every aspect of how we respond to spills — from response resources to the methods we use for spill response to including Indigenous and municipal governments in planning.

The federal government continues to claim that this project is in the national interest, while evidence and research suggest otherwise. The economic case for fossil fuels is unravelling, as the benefits of government revenues and jobs decline, while the impacts of their production on climate change and the natural world continues to climb.

It is time for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to acknowledge that the government’s case for Trans Mountain is crumbling and move on from this project that puts our coast at risk.

Christianne Wilhelmson is the executive director of Georgia Strait Alliance, a regional marine conservation organization and intervener in the National Energy Board process.

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