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Opinion

Lip Service Won’t Protect BC Land or Water from Catastrophic Spills

So far, government has failed to guard the province with effective response plan.

By Christianne Wilhelmson 5 May 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Christianne Wilhelmson is executive director of Georgia Strait Alliance, a regional marine conservation organization.

Despite what our leaders might say, a “world-leading” spill response plan is nowhere to be seen in B.C.

The government claims that its much-hyped five conditions for approving the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion have been met, and that our waters will be protected from increased tanker traffic. While a lot of promises have been made to improve our province’s spill response capacity, these only exist on paper.

It’s been a year since the province announced its land-based spill response measures, but next to nothing has changed in that time. We are in the same place as we were last May, except that the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline, which will carry diluted bitumen, has been approved.

Next came the federal Oceans Protection Plan, which looks like a great start on paper. Premier Christy Clark claimed that it met all of B.C.’s needs, and allowed her to check off the marine spill response condition.

The plan, part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s strategy to clear a path for the approval of the Kinder Morgan project, contains commitments to long-overdue measures such as more capacity for the Coast Guard, a bigger oil pollution fund and a stronger role for Indigenous and local communities in spill response. These are all much needed, but with no timeline yet announced for funding or implementation, our coast is only protected on paper. Words, in the absence of action, do not protect our orcas, salmon and coastal communities.

The Nathan E. Stewart spill near Bella Bella is our most recent indication of the current state of spill response on the West Coast. An investigation by the Heiltsuk First Nation shows how accountability and transparency were lacking, response capacity was inadequate and local communities bore the brunt of the impacts. Many of these same problems were outlined in the independent review commissioned by the Coast Guard about the Marathassa incident in English Bay in 2015.

Since the spill in Bella Bella, neither the federal or provincial government have put new capacity or systems in place. Claiming that B.C. now has world-leading spill response is disingenuous.

And then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room: diluted bitumen. Neither the provincial or federal government has weighed in on how spilled diluted bitumen — the type of heavy oil that will be carried by Kinder Morgan’s pipeline and then by tankers — will be cleaned up, despite the fact that a 2015 Simon Fraser University report found a 58 to 98 per cent likelihood of a tanker spill over a 50-year period.

Diluted bitumen can sink, and once it does, there aren’t any known technologies to clean it up. That’s the finding of a U.S. Congress-commissioned report by the National Academy of Sciences. It called for all oil-spill plans in the United States to be updated to address the unique challenges of this substance.

“World-leading” spill response makes a great sound bite for politicians, but it’s the wrong measure of success. What matters is that when oil spills on land or in the water, we can recover it effectively — and right now we simply can’t.

We desperately need better spill response to reduce the risk from the vessels that are already travelling in our waters. But all we’ve seen are measures promised as a bargaining chip for a pipeline: they aren’t effective at recovering bitumen, and they haven’t resulted in changes on the ground.

With a provincial election days away, I caution British Columbians against being lulled into a false sense of security. Our province is no more protected from oil spills today than it was four years ago. In fact, the B.C. government has increased the risk to our communities and environment by allowing the Kinder Morgan project to be approved. 

Paper promises and wishful thinking won’t protect our waters or our communities.

I encourage you to vote to protect our coast on May 9.  [Tyee]

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