Spill report confirms it: Conservative cutbacks crippled the cleanup

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A shady flag-of-convenience shipowner, a major leak of bunker fuel and a coast guard too crippled by cutbacks to respond immediately: It was the perfect storm for the waters of Vancouver’s English Bay last April.

blistering report was released today on the Canadian Coast Guard’s environmental response to the April 8 spill in Canada’s busiest port. It confirms two of the biggest threats to our coasts: the slippery nature of the FoC vessels that the Harper Conservatives are inviting into our coastal trade, and the catastrophic refusal of the same government to respect, fund and strengthen the safety net that backstops the maritime trade that Canada relies on.

For three days after the spill, the captain of the Cyprus-flagged MV Marathassa denied that his ship was leaking. Every day, ITF inspectors in Canada claw at the corporate veil shielding flag-of-convenience shipowners. We know all about intentional dumping of marine pollutants, about unpaid and exploited workers
— and they deny that too.

The report lays the whole mess out in exquisite detail. Harper — hell bent on increasing risky flag-of-convenience shipping in Canadian waters — refuses to protect the marine environment with a strong, fully funded safety net of expert coast guard workers.

Harper had a chance to re-open the Kitsilano base that sat within sight of the Marathassa spill, fully staffed and equipped with spill-response gear. He could have stopped the closure of MCTS traffic-communication centres. Instead, he slapped together band-aid measures that put us all in danger.

Coast-guard cutbacks play out at every single level cited in the report: not enough staff, not enough of them where they’re needed, bases too far from where they’re required, not enough equipment, or communications equipment the agency knew was insufficient — not even enough routine exercises to keep staff current with procedures.

If you care about safety, you budget enough money for staff, training and equipment. You don’t leave emergency response crew fishing around for their own personal cellphones and laptops to keep in touch during an incident.  (Read the report. It happened.)

John Butler, former assistant commissioner for the coast guard in the Atlantic region, produced the detailed report on “key factors” affecting how Canada’s maritime safety agencies — including the wing of the Ministry of the Environment that helps with assessments and advice — responded last April when a passing sailboat reported oil in the anchorage waters of English Bay.

We’ve picked out some of the most troubling findings, but there’s no better way to sum up the flavour of the whole mess than by reproducing one of the report’s recommendations verbatim. It reads (and we kid you not):

Recommendation #9 ‐ The Canadian Coast Guard should ensure it has adequate staff to respond to a major marine pollution incident in any part of its region at any given time.

Yes. Cuts have run so deep that a former senior staffer has to note in his report that the agency should actually have enough staff to deal with disasters when they happen.

His report also says:

  • There was utter confusion about the basic issue of who was in charge, about “the roles and responsibilities of key partners in oil spill response”.
    Coast guard staff thought that since the spill was in Port Metro Vancouver’s waters, the port was responsible. In fact, in cases when the source of the spill is still unclear, coast guard always takes the lead. The report blames the “misunderstanding ” on the fact there was a “significant changeover” in coast guard staff. It also says that the duty officer, who is responsible for receiving and assessing pollution reports, was physically located in Prince Rupert — and “may not have been appropriately made aware” of protocols or of the port’s role in spill response.
    Our take: A government serious about marine safety would have staff where they need them, and fund sufficient practice exercises and simulations to train them properly.
  • The confusion meant that both the coast guard and the port contacted the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (the industry-funded company that helps manage incidents and do on-water booming and recovery). But neither party actually asked the company to send out a team. Luckily, the company decided to mobilize its response teams on its own anyway, half an hour after being called, explaining they’d consider it “an exercise”. That decision saved time in the end, but only after confusion had caused 30 minutes of needless delay in addressing the spill in the first place.
    Yikes. We have been repeatedly assured by government and industry associations — and the likes of the BC Chamber of Shipping’s Capt. Steven Brown — that “it’s all good and that there’s no need for landlubbers to worry, this is too technical for you to understand, but we assure you we’ve got this.” Lesson learned.
  • There’s no “shared, comprehensive, multi‐agency oil spill response plan for Vancouver Harbour that included a checklist of immediate, precautionary” actions all parties should take — which “would have assisted in expediting response-measure decisions,” the report says. Seriously? Do these people even talk? We know that the angry public debate over  the carbon economy and maritime policy has led to a bunker mentality on all sides. We think it’s time for everyone to get to the table, put away the agendas and press for the highest achievable marine protection standards.
  • Coast guard had nobody around to set up the Incident Control Post and Unified Command that are supposed to be launched after a spill — even though running the post and the command is their job to do.
    The excuse? They were “demobilizing” crew from a “pollution response” in Grenville Channel — for a ship that sank in 1946, and that the coast guard has been cleaning up after for years. Instead, WCMRC initiated the on‐water response and provided command-post support, something it is permitted to do. As the report says, the coast guard’s senior response officer “was the only onsite coast guard employee addressing the spill until the morning of April 9“.
    Is it just us who are uncomfortable hearing that response crews are so thinly staffed that a 69-year-old ongoing oil-leak cleanup project leaves them scrambling?
  • Coast guard didn’t have a space that would hold all the people who were eventually assembled as part of the Unified Command effort. They used one of the port’s offices at first, but quickly outgrew it.
    The report suggests that coast guard consider pre‐established command-post locations for a variety of standardized scenarios. It also suggests that because so many parties had a finger in the overall Unified Command set up for ongoing operations, coast guard establish a separate strategic management location — in other words, stream off management from the bigger herd, something that is standard practice in responses.
    We hope they do both. And we think that had Kitsilano base still been open, the Unified Command might have begun there under the initial leadership of the base commander.
  • Communications were a mess, and that helped delay the response by almost two hours.
    In addition, much of the communications equipment couldn’t be used. The government’s network security protocols “prevented the sharing of vital information at a critical time,” the report says. Coast guard and Fisheries staff had to use personal phones, laptops and email accounts to share information with partners in the response. Printers were security-locked too, so the coast guard “was compelled to purchase stand-alone printers to allow partners to print documents during the incident.”
    In contrast, the report notes, “the Province of B.C. had a portable system equipped with wi-fi ports and pre-assigned email addresses that any open computer could access to facilitate information sharing within Unified Command. The City of Vancouver had similar capacity…. Both the Province of BC and City of Vancouver had prior experience planning and exercising, which enabled them to communicate effectively during the incident. This issue had been identified in previous environmental and large scale incidents but has yet to be resolved.” So if we’re reading that right, government knew about the problem and didn’t fix it. Even though all kinds of other governments had it figured out. There really is a reoccurring theme to this report, isn’t there?
  • Environment Canada, which is called to the scene to provide “sound, independent scientific and environmental advice”, was nowhere to be found either.
    The ministry runs something called the National Environmental Emergencies Centre, which “provides knowledge on environmental priorities, local environmental conditions, hazardous substances, spill models, the fate and behaviour of pollutants, site specific expertise, weather forecast, migratory birds expertise and permitting, and provides assessments of oiled shorelines to prioritize their protection and clean-up using the Shoreline Clean-up Assessment Technique.”
    Coast guard asked for the centre for on-site support. None came. So coast guard officials went over their heads and contacted local Environment Canada officials. NEEC still decided it could advise remotely.
    Apparently it was a bad decision. The report observes that “it was noted by most partners that working remotely was ineffective and detrimental to the overall response”. Was that just environmental radicals wanking? Again, apparently not. In 2013, the Harper-appointed independent Tanker Safety Expert Panel itself noted that “the coordination and delivery of Environment Canada’s scientific capability would be enhanced by their on-site presence when requested by the On-Scene Commander.” NEEC finally sent someone to the scene on April 19, 11 days after the spill, and only then to settle a dispute about the scope of shoreline cleanup. So the Harper Government ignored even its own much-ballyhooed tanker review panel. Is the conservative government dumb, or do they think we are?
    The report scolds the ministry: “EC’s on-site presence would have provided much-needed independent support and advice in the Environmental Unit, would have expedited shore cleanup and environmental sensitivity decision-making, and would have added an element of public stewardship from an environmental perspective. ” And it recommends that the ministry review its “trigger criteria for on-site presence” — with the help of the coast guard.
    We agree. This should be a priority. And so should balancing the public and private interests as environmental response is planned and carried out.

Like we said, a blistering report.

Coast Guard Commisioner Jody Thomas said a lot of things after the Marathassa spill in English Bay. One of them was that “Canada has one of the strongest marine-safety regimes in the world”. She also said that “as Commissioner of the Coast Guard, I remain committed to ensuring the safety of Canadians in our waters and protecting our marine environments.”

We note that Thomas joined the coast guard as a deputy commissioner after a long stint with Passport Canada’s security operations. According the the coast guard website, as deputy commissioner of coast guard operations, for four years she has been responsible for “strategic and operational policy frameworks and has ensured the strategic direction for the cost-effective delivery of CCG programs.”

She must have been efficient on the “cost-effective” front — and at ripping the guts out of the coast-guard service. On Jan. 1 of 2015, she was rewarded with the job of Commissioner.

And then on April 8, karma bit her on the ass. The Marathassa leaked 2,700 litres of bunker. And the coast guard under her command couldn’t cope with a fuel spill into calm seas. “One of the strongest marine-safety regimes in the world”? Apparently not. Her hands — and the hands of her agency, and of the Conservative government — are stained with Bunker C.

For many years now, Canada’s marine unions have provided copious advice to government agencies. Our affiliates — Unifor, the Seafarers International Union  Canada, the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, the International Longshore Association, the Canadian Merchant Service Guild and the BC Ferry and Marine Workers Union — have all done their level best in industry consultations to ensure that enhanced protections for Canada exist and are improved. But to no avail.
It is now too late to hope that the Harper Conservatives will actually protect Canadian shorelines. We are beyond that now. They have proven that their neo-conservative economic policies override protection of our coasts.

Would negligence be too strong a charge?

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2 responses to “Spill report confirms it: Conservative cutbacks crippled the cleanup

  1. Thanks Peter, if you read or listen to official industry opinion from downtown Vancouver or Montreal on the spill they chalk it up as a minor event and public hysteria.
    I am often dismayed by scaremongering by some of the environmental community. But on this point they and working mariners will agree. Woefully lacking marine support mechanisms such as regulation, enforcement, marine assets, manpower and commitment to a truly world class marine business.

    For years I have been saying the shipping industry in Vancouver is extremely parochial. And they have the ear of Government who are poorly served by their advice. Both, self serving and self interested. This isn’t good for workers or communities and in the long run industry is also extremely poorly served by slip shod operations that the public demands just be shut down.

    Like

  2. This report confirms what we all saw was a Keystone Cops performance. During the aftermath (long after) of the spill, fixed wing and chopper traffic circulated overhead and the usual alphabet soup of officialdom (VPD, RCMSAR, CCG etc) orbited on the surface. Amid this fleet of “chiefs” were two lonely civilians in a tin boat struggling with the booms and actually doing something useful.

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