Column: ‘World class’ spill response is anything but

This country just received a bracing environmental wake-up call.

It has led to understandable anger on our West Coast, some very blunt political finger pointing and has shone a light on federal cutbacks, which critics believe endanger some of the most pristine waters and parkland in Canada.

As this week starts, the cleanup of Vancouver’s English Bay continues. The political battle and the federal Conservatives’ efforts to contain damage to its West Coast political brand is fully engaged.

When almost 3,000 litres of bunker fuel leaked from the cargo ship Marathassa last week off English Bay, the response was botched.

It’s easy to play the “what if” game, but in this case, the “what if” questions must be asked.

Bunker fuel floats, the damage was contained, but oil slicks washing up on English Bay, Stanley Park and other jewels of one of the most gorgeous urban oases this country has to offer is unsettling.

What if this was bitumen?

What is clear is that Ottawa’s so-called “world class” spill response is anything but.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark boldly called out the federal Conservatives, calling their response unacceptable and saying the province would take over the primary response role if Ottawa can’t step up.

She called Harper’s office to complain moments before she went before the cameras to voice her anger Friday.

It’s a sure bet that when federal politicians – as Industry Minister James Moore and Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford did – start throwing out lines like “I won’t engage in speculation,” “it’s not helpful to finger point,” and “I think we should all concentrate on the cleanup,” there is culpability.

Moore, the political minister for British Columbia, stressed the cleanup was quick and that the Cypriot tanker would bear the costs of the cleanup.

He accused Clark and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson of running to the cameras with “a half or quarter” of the information available in a bid to score political points.

“Politicians piling on by spreading misinformation is unhelpful,” Moore said.

But this much is true:

The Conservatives closed the Kitsilano Coast Guard station.

The city of Vancouver says it was not informed of the leak until 12 hours after it was detected, but the federal government disputes that.

It took six hours for the Coast Guard to get booms in place in response to the leak, but a former commander of the closed station, Fred Moxey, told the Vancouver Sun the response would have been six minutes if the station was still open.

The closed station was within hailing distance of this leak, something that should have been so easily contained, occurring in calm waters in an urban area.

Roger Girouard, the assistant coast guard commissioner, said the Kitsilano station would not have made “one iota” of difference to the response and he said he will not accept Clark’s characterization of the response as “inadequate.”

Conservatives also closed the Vancouver Environment Canada station of Environmental Emergencies and the Marine Mammal Contaminants Program within the department of fisheries and oceans.


Conservatives also closed regional offices in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Dartmouth, N.S., and St. John’s. It has been replaced by a 1-800 number which rings in Gatineau, Que., and Montreal, says Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

“We’ve had some near misses, relatively minor events, that should serve as giant wake-up calls,” May said.

This all plays out, of course, against opposition in British Columbia to the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline which would take bitumen from Alberta to the port of Burnaby.

It also reinforces fears of tanker traffic should the Northern Gateway pipeline ever get off the ground.

Tanker traffic could multiply off the B.C. coast under those plans.

Clark has placed five conditions on approval of heavy oil traversing her province, including “world class” spill response, and late last week she vowed: “There will be no movement of heavy oil out of this port until we get world class spill response.”

The Harper government’s fierce push back against images of oil-stained birds on a Vancouver beach is vital, because there is still no backup plan to its moribund pipeline strategy. It can tighten up rail safety and point to the relative safety of pipelines, but the environment was already set to play outsized importance in B.C. in this autumn’s federal election.

Pipeline opponents were handed a legitimate “what if” moment and the government cannot dismiss this.

The English Bay cleanup continues this week.

The damage to Conservatives on the West Coast may be tougher to clean up.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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