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Spill response, clean-up, too slow

Officials maintain correct procedures were followed; six birds now cleaned and released

Although Coast Guard officials say response time was adequate, concerns are being raised by locals and a scientist about the time taken to respond and clean up after the 30,000-litre bunker fuel spill Aug. 4 in Squamish.

Howard Bailey, an American biologist who helped write the Cheakamus River ecosystem recovery plan this year, said although the area’s high winds and high tides on Aug. 4 contributed to a worst case scenario for spill containment efforts, he is still surprised at the lack of rescue equipment available on site at Squamish Terminal.

"There should have been a warehouse with gear and a trained team in place," Bailey said. Too much time was spent between federal and provincial agencies in discussing plans of action, he added.

"Any time you spend around thinking who is culpable or whatever is a waste of time while the fuel gets into vegetation, which is exactly what it did," he said.

Squamish Terminal’s president Ron Anderson refused to comment about the lack of on site equipment.

The 200-metre Westwood Anette, a Norwegian cargo ship guided by a B.C. coast pilot, was reversing away from Squamish port in a restrictive narrow area between docks and dikes at about 2:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4, when strong southerly winds pushed it back. Although dock fenders were in place, dolphin pilings punched two 15-centimetre diameter holes through the steel-plated hull, puncturing one fuel tank in the process. Ship crews immediately began transferring oil from the damaged fuel tank to adjacent tanks but about 29,500 litres escaped in the port area. High winds then pushed fuel into Squamish estuary side channels, fouling vegetation and birds.

Safety investigators say the accident was not unusual.

"As far as we are concerned if it wasn’t for the pollution, it was just a minor striking," said Raymond Matthew, Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s chief investigator into the incident.

"These things happen all the time: ships leave docks and the wind catches them."

Coast Guard officials maintain correct procedures were followed in a timely manner. All ships entering Canada are required to have a response plan in place and the Westwood Anette followed that plan, placing phone calls to which Vancouver-based Burrard Clean Operations responded.

Transport Canada standards require responses to spills under 150 tonnes to be within six hours and according to Coast Guard records, Burrard Clean’s ship and the Coast Guard’s cutter, Mallard, were on the scene within three hours.

But an eyewitness’s account disputes that timing. Gary Smith was at the scene watching his son, kiteboarding instructor Alex Noke-Smith, at the time of the accident. Noke-Smith and two other kiteboarders were coated by the spill and had to be treated at Squamish General Hospital. Gary Smith said response time was slow and inadequate. He noted that the first boom used to contain the spill was much too small. Although he observed two boats trying to assist shortly after the spill, neither belonged to the Coast Guard or Burrard Clean Operations.

Federal regulations do not require Canadian marine ports to have spill response gear on site and leaves responsibility for oil spill response plans to rest with ship owners – "a very odd situation," says the David Suzuki Foundation. Ann Rowan, the foundation’s sustainability director, says with provincial plans for expanded port facilities and increased marine traffic a comprehensive provincially-mandated oil spill response plan should be in place.

"We would like to see the province have a plan of action that would be determined by the province and the bill for the clean-up presented to the company responsible," Rowan said.

"This is going to be an issue because anytime you increase shipping traffic these kinds of accidents are more likely to happen," she added.

Squamish acting mayor Mike Jenson said Squamish port receives about 10 ships a month and although none are oil tankers, he is sure an oil spill response facility and plan will be a topic for future district council meetings.

"There is concern over it. And I’m sure that the district and First Nations will be looking at this incident to determine whether terminals or ships need to be able to secure this," he said.

Local resident Richard Moore supervised the Squamish decontamination centre for clean-up crews. He is concerned about the length of time the clean-up is taking.

"We’ve got bald eagles coming in November and if they start feeding on oiled carcasses that’s going to be another issue."

Moore, who worked on a Long Beach spill on Vancouver Island in 1989, thinks certain estuary areas should be cleaned using controlled-burn methods. "We need to get this mess cleaned up before it becomes more of a disaster than it already is," he said.

Meanwhile six Canada geese were released this week, having been captured, cleaned and rehabilitated by Whistler-based Cascade Environmental Services and Focus Wildlife, a Washington-based professional wildlife organization hired by shipowners Gearbulk Canada.

Acting mayor Jenson was present for the Monday release at Brennan Park in Squamish, a popular geese resting spot.

"It was a great sight to see these (formerly) sick birds released from their cages nice and clean," he said. "They flew out to the flock and they honked at each other for about 10-15 seconds and then that was it. Life was normal, no fuss, no muss."