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English Bay Spill: Canada Can Do Better

English Bay Spill

Published Jul 31, 2015 8:21 PM by Wendy Laursen

Canada has concluded an independent review of the environmental response operation to the fuel spill in English Bay in April, and 25 recommendations have been made to improve future response efforts.

The report by John Butler, Independent Review of the M/V Marathassa Fuel Oil Spill Environmental Response Operation, presents recommendations aimed at improving the environmental response capability of the Canadian Coast Guard, Environment Canada, Transport Canada and their partners. 

Denying Responsibility

On Wednesday April 8 the sailing vessel Hali observed a sheen of oil in English Bay and reported it to the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG). The CCG managed the response and clean-up operation with support from key partners including Western Marine Response Corporation. 

Although the captain and representatives for the Marathassa initially denied responsibility, it was subsequently determined in the early morning of April 9 that the Marathassa had discharged an unknown quantity of intermediate fuel oil (suspected to be IFO 3802) into English Bay on April 8.

A Complex Response

Due to the complexity of the incident, the Commissioner of the CCG initiated a review for the purpose of identifying what worked well and what could be improved. In this case, the response and clean-up lasted a total of 166 days. Skimming of the fuel oil was conducted immediately and completed on day four. The polluting vessel was boomed in the early morning on April 9, and shoreline clean-up continued until day 16. 

There was minimal impact on the public from a health and safety perspective. However, Environment Canada estimated that approximately 20 birds were affected. 

Communication Problems

CCG used an inclusive approach to the Unified Command structure, bringing in other levels of government and non-governmental organizations, which was seen in a positive light by most. As the response progressed, the Unified Command, under CCG leadership, became increasingly coordinated.

However, the review found that CCG should improve its communication protocols with partners to ensure accuracy of communications. A combination of factors such as uncertainty of roles and responsibilities, miscommunications and technical difficulties, resulted in a delay in the response of 1 hour and 49 minutes.

Information sharing on a common network was not possible due to Government of Canada electronic policies and protocols, which limited the effectiveness of the Incident Command Post.

Early alerting of the municipalities, First Nations, and stakeholders of the incident was delayed due to the low classification of the incident in the provincial alerting system. Some partners were notified of the incident via informal channels due to previous working relationships or were alerted by the heightened media attention.

Many response partners noted that the current area response planning timelines don’t meet the immediate need to engage partners to develop an effective plan in Vancouver Harbour. 

The lack of a physical presence of Environment Canada impacted the effectiveness and efficiency of the Environmental Unit.

Public communications from the Unified Command was challenging, as energy was focused on supporting government officials in media briefings, rather than ensuring key facts about the on-water operation were being shared with citizens and Unified Command partners.

Government Response

“I have directed the Canadian Coast Guard, in concert with their federal partners and other levels of government, to act swiftly on all of Mr. Butler’s recommendations,” says Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. “Implementation of all recommendations is already in progress. Once all 25 recommendations are complete, I will report back to British Columbians. In the meantime, I am urging closer cooperation between all environmental response agencies in Canada’s major ports. 

“I want to once again thank the citizens of Vancouver and the nearby municipalities for their active engagement, their outpouring of concern and their overwhelming willingness to be involved in clean-up efforts. I come from a maritime community and I fully understand and share the frustration of having a foreign ship enter a Canadian harbor and spill fuel into our waters,” she said.

“I want to reassure British Columbians that the Government of Canada is strongly committed to ensuring the protection of our marine environments. The polluter pay principle means that the polluting vessel is responsible for the costs of cleaning up the mess they left in English Bay. Our government will aggressively pursue compensation. As Canada’s trade with the world grows, we must be able to ensure that economic activity on our waters be conducted safely and responsibly.”

The report is available here.