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Extraordinarily compassionate community responds to spill

But worker safety investigated, wildlife rescuers scramble

While Norwegian cargo ship Westwood Anette slipped from port this week, provincial safety investigators arrived in Squamish to check whether workers were wearing proper gear during clean-up operations from British Columbia’s first estuary oil spill.

Worksafe B.C. (formerly Workers Compensation Board) officials confirmed a complaint had been received Monday from a worker feeling ill after clearing oil from a Squamish estuary side channel fouled from the 30,000 litre Aug. 4 spill.

Ken Bouchet, regional manager of the board’s Vancouver-Central/North region, said an investigator was dispatched Monday afternoon to look into the complaint.

Occupational hygiene officer, Jeff Pasternak, of Worksafe B.C., said he spent about 90 minutes observing the site and talking to workers. He said workers did not express any concerns and were wearing appropriate gear, full body suits, hand and foot protection, but not respirators.

"In the circumstances I observed yesterday in my view respirators were not needed," Pasternak said, noting that respirators and stockpiles of extra gear were available for workers to use.

Pasternak said it is unclear whether Bunker C fuel spilled from Westwood Anette is a carcinogen. Bunker C fuel is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons, Pasternak said, but some of its qualities do show up on carcinogen lists.

Whether workers should have been wearing respirators to protect themselves from fuel vapours is a subjective call contingent on time elapsed since the spill, wind direction, and contaminant levels, he said.

"The conditions at Squamish are quite variable and changing on a regular basis," he said, "and that has the effect of dissipating and diluting the vapours that may be rising off the material."

Quantum Environmental Group, the sub-contractor hired to clean the estuary, used between 30 and 100 workers during the first days after the spill. Many were locals and one-third were First Nations, according to a company representative.

Phil Linder of Quantum’s emergency response division, dismissed a worker’s complaint as resulting from "having been out late the night before."

Linder said workers were not issued respiratory gear because Quantum does not consider Bunker C fuel to be toxic. He also cited decreased movement ability as a reason for not wearing respiratory gear.

In another part of the estuary local and international rescue workers moved in on geese and other wildlife affected by the spill. But trying to capture 100 "clever" oil-coated Canada Geese is no easy task, said Mike Nelson, owner of Whistler-based Cascade Environmental Services.

"Once you do one technique to capture they learn and tend to avoid you," he said. Five Cascade staffers are working with six Washington-based Focus Wildlife rescue workers. Led by the group’s director, Chris Battaglia, who worked on the 1988 Exxon Valdez spill, the teams are hoping to switch from hand-held nets to larger nets that can capture 40 geese at a time.

Wildlife are sent to a field hospital in Burnaby, where they are given a "beak to tail" check up before being cleaned, Battaglia said.

Contradicting Ministry of Environmental biologists who said only weak birds could be captured and cleaned, Battaglia maintained birds need to be strong to survive the stress of being cleaned by humans. Birds also need considerable energy after being cleaned for recovery.

"Birds have to preen their feathers to restore architectural integrity of their feathers," Battaglia said.

Microscopic barbs on birds’ feathers create a cushion of air between skin and feathers that normally keep them water repellant. But oil compromises that capacity and is like gum in human hair, Battaglia said.

Once birds are cleaned they are kept under observation for three days in netted swimming pools with flowing fresh water currents. When they are judged healthy enough to go back in the wild birds will be banded and released. It takes about a week to rehabilitate a bird.

Rescue teams have captured seven birds so far, but had to euthanise one. Battaglia said he would like to capture 100 more birds. Ministry of Environment estimates about 150 birds, including Canada geese, heron, cormorants and mallards, were affected by the spill. There have been unconfirmed reports of oil coated otters and seals.

Lawyers for shipowners Gearbulk Canada, said they would provide whatever resources were necessary to ensure wildlife were rescued and rehabilitated.

Focus Wildlife stressed how "extraordinarily compassionate" and helpful local businesses have been during the wildlife rescue. Over 20 companies, as well as local, provincial and national government departments, have lent time and materials to rescue efforts. Sea to Sky Courier have been transporting birds free of charge to the temporary Burnaby rescue facility, a vacant office building on loan from Shell Canada. Squamish General Hospital donated sheets, towels, buckets and blankets, while local veterinarians Val Dirdala and Tom Honey donated services.

After repairs and cleaning, Westwood Anette, the 42-tonne Norwegian cargo ship that spilled almost 30,000 litres of fuel into Squamish harbour as a result of hitting pilings 10 days ago, left port Aug. 12. Transportation Safety Board of Canada is investigating cause of the accident.