Anger and confusion have consumed the shorelines of the Coast Salish/Vancouver area this week as oil washed ashore from a grain tanker fuel spill on Wednesday, April 8.
Untrained and under-equipped locals have taken to the beaches in an attempt to clean congealed lumps of toxic bunker fuel from rocks and logs. Meanwhile, the mayor and premier have both taken shots at the federal government for a response effort that Premier Christy Clark called “unacceptable.” For his part, the mayor is wondering why it took 12 hours to notify the city of the spill.
Concerns over tanker safety have been mounting in B.C. over the past year, leading to the Kinder Morgan pipeline battle on Burnaby mountain last fall, which resulted in 103 arrests. Public opinion in this coastal province was already strongly against pipelines and tankers, and images of oil washing up on one of Vancouver’s most iconic beaches are sure to bolster that resistance.
Fingers are being pointed at the Harper government for making broad cuts to coastal marine safety, including the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station, which reportedly could have responded to the spill in six minutes, rather than the six hours it took.
The spill comes at a bad time for the government. Going into an election year, the Conservatives are currently scrambling to balance a budget they have delayed for months. Many fear their obsession with balancing the budget will lead to deeper cuts to vital services.
On May 6, the Harper government plans to shut down the Vancouver Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre and the Regional Marine Information Centre, bodies that exist to prevent shipping accidents, provide rapid response and notify responders and government agencies of any spills. After the closure, the coast guard will no longer provide anchorage assistance to oil tankers and cargo ships.
According to a scathing article in the Globe and Mail, over the past three years the number of frontline staff in B.C. has been cut by 25 per cent, the boat designed to respond to oil spills has been put up on blocks, the relevant coast guard base has been closed and the trained staff reassigned or simply let go. The retired commander of the closed Kitsilano base, Fred Moxey, said “the assets simply weren’t in place” to respond quickly.
“The crew was trained and the ship was ready around the clock for a first attack,” Captain Moxey told the Globe and Mail. “Had the base been open and the crew on duty, they would have been out into English Bay in a matter of minutes.”
All of this takes place in the context of multiple proposals for new oil terminals and increased tanker traffic off the coast of B.C. to service the expansion of the Alberta tar sands.