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BC Politics

Private Clean-up Firm Defends Oil Spill Response

'There was no delay in our response,' spokesman says.

David P Ball 14 Apr

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

The private firm which spent an entire night attempting to contain a heavy oil spill in English Bay last week has defended the length of time it took to arrive at the accident -- about 80 minutes -- as "an incredible response time."

However, Michael Lowry, a spokesman for Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), suggested the longer delay came after the Canadian Coast Guard alerted British Columbia's network of emergency management partners that a spill had occurred.

It took that group nearly three hours -- from 5:14 p.m. to 8:06 p.m. -- to notify WCMRC that a serious spill had occurred. WCMRC is the oil-industry owned consortium responsible for spill clean up on the West Coast.

Under B.C.'s emergency protocols, those partners are a network of agencies that include "local, shore-side authorities" such as municipal governments and First Nations as well as relevant government bodies, according to a Coast Guard news release. 

The spill was spotted last Wednesday just after 5 p.m. when a boater reported a slick surrounding the bulk grain carrier Marathassa.

"There was no delay in our response," Lowry said. "The time between when we were officially activated by the Coast Guard and when our first boat arrived was one hour and 19 minutes, which is an incredible response time."

Anchored near Stanley Park

In a phone interview, Lowry said his firm's clean up crews arrived at the scene at 9:25 p.m., more than four hours after the boaters first called in the slick. The MV Marathassa's owners initially denied responsibility, but by Thursday admitted the fuel came from their bulk grain ship anchored near Stanley Park.

Lowry confirmed that the owners of the ship were paying members of the WCMRC -- meaning there would be an established process to ensure that the ship owner paid for the clean up. That's a requirement of visiting a Canadian port, Lowry said. A ship without such an arrangement must first sign an 11-page "third-party agreement" to get spill help. Luckily, last week that wasn't needed.

There has been controversy about the lag time between when the spill was spotted and when the clean up crews arrived.

But Lowry defended the consortium's response.

"I want to dispel any notion there was a delay because we didn't know who the responsible party was," Lowry said. "There was no interruption."

He explained that the company operates on a "polluter pay" model. "We recover our costs from the responsible party," Lowry added. "We're a contractor of the responsible party -- the ship owners."

WCMRC, formerly known as Burrard Clean, is owned by a consortium of oil companies including pipeline operator Kinder Morgan and several others, which Transport Canada has authorized to respond to spills on B.C.'s coast.

But the former commander of the nearby Kitsilano Coast Guard base -- shuttered two years ago – blamed the response delay on years of cutbacks and "outsourcing" of federal spill responsibilities to the private sector.

"Originally, going way back, it was all completely our responsibility," said Fred Moxey. "The government wanted to get out of it, it was costing too much money.

Reduced costs

"They chipped away at it [and] gradually downsized and handed off responsibilities to these private companies. These private companies like Burrard Clean were very professional, but I think they've gone too far and should back up a bit and have a look at this again."

Meanwhile, fellow former Coast Guard officer Capt. Tony Toxopeus -- who worked for several decades in the agency before leaving in 2012 -- slammed assistant Coast Guard commissioner Roger Girouard's claim Thursday that "Kits base would not have made an iota of difference" to the clean up speed.

Toxopeus said the base had thousands of feet of oil-containing booms and a pollution boat. Reopening that base, and reversing cuts to Coast Guard staffing would mean federal responders ready to hit the water 24/7 from full-time, dedicated stations, not needing to be called in from afar.

Meanwhile, Lowry said WCMRC has exceptional response capability and adequate staffing, and challenged the notion that Vancouver's clean up was in any way hampered by private sector involvement.

"It's not at all outsourcing," he argued. "It's how the regime was set up in Canada."

That system emerged following a government inquiry following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. The inquiry called for improved oil disaster response plans, including tasking response organizations to deal with major accidents while meeting "high standards" set by Canada.

"They're not farming out this operation," Lowry said. "It's actually a way to hold industry accountable while making sure the government is regulating the whole regime."

Current Coast Guard officer Allan Hughes, who's also regional director for the union representing Coast Guard members, said the federal government should reverse its cuts to Coast Guard offices on the West Coast, including impending office closures that will consolidate operations to Victoria.

"You're cutting the very basics of the prevention aspect and the response," Hughes said. "Really, the Coast Guard's been cut so thin resource-wise, they can't find enough people to staff the vital positions now. The government's moving way faster than the Coast Guard can respond."

The Coast Guard did not respond to interview requests.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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