Oil spill threat remains one year after English Bay spill

Environmental group welcomes spill response reforms, but bitumen is the elephant in the room

Today marks one year since the grain ship Marathassa spilled thousands of litres of bunker fuel into Vancouver’s English Bay. The response operation that followed was widely criticized, and highlighted serious problems with the systems in place for spill response on BC’s west coast.

One year later, both the federal and provincial governments have brought forward new initiatives to strengthen spill planning and response. BC has introduced updated legislation for land-based spills, and the federal government is developing a new multi-agency plan tailored to respond to marine spills on BC’s south coast.

Environmental group Georgia Strait Alliance welcomes these reforms, but points to diluted bitumen spills as a key unsolved problem.

“The Marathassa spill was a wake-up call. Poor communication and lack of detailed local plans led to a seriously flawed response to a relatively small spill in the middle of Vancouver Harbour – imagine what could have happened in a worst-case scenario? It’s encouraging to see governments working towards addressing some of these gaps, and adopting a more inclusive approach to planning – and we hope they heed the advice they are hearing through community consultation,” says Christianne Wilhelmson, Executive Director of Georgia Strait Alliance.

An expert report commissioned by US Congress, published in December 2015, showed conclusively that bitumen can sink in fresh or salt water, and that its unique properties make conventional spill response equipment ineffective.

“Diluted bitumen is the elephant in the room. Improved planning won’t change the fact that effective recovery of sunken diluted bitumen is near impossible. To protect our communities we need to prevent bitumen spills from happening in the first place, and that means rejecting the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion,” says Wilhelmson.

To educate communities about the serious threat of a bitumen spill on our coast, Georgia Strait Alliance has published a new report, Oil Spills in Your Backyard, which outlines the local, economic, environmental and health impacts of a major spill in the Salish Sea.

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Christianne Wilhelmson
Executive Director
Georgia Strait Alliance