B.C. oil spill response ‘gaps’ exposed in government email

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Gaps found or improvements needed for ‘hundreds of spills on an annual basis’

B.C. oil spill response ‘gaps’ exposed in government email

British Columbia’s oil spill response has come under scrutiny after the emergence of an email between high-ranking staff at the Ministry of Environment referring to “hundreds of spills on an annual basis where gaps occurred or improvements are needed.”

The heavily redacted email, which was discovered by the NDP as part of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, was sent on March 31 by Graham Knox, head of B.C.’s Environmental Emergency Program, to Jim Hofweber, executive director of the province’s Environmental Emergencies and Land Remediation Branch.

‘The Ministry of Environment had to admit they had actually done no data collection to know if the spill was going to be toxic, if it could harm children.’– NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert

Several incidents are mentioned where an effective response was considered lacking, including one from a Kinder Morgan pipeline spill at their Sumas tank farm where, “no air monitoring or sampling was done to determine what the concentrations of chemicals in the air.”

According to the email, Kinder Morgan assured the public there were no health impacts from the spill despite having no scientific evidence to back up those claims, and in the face of community complaints of “nausea, headaches, strong odours, etc.”

‘Rolling the dice’

NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert said of all the incidents discussed in the email, the Sumas incident, which took place near an elementary school, was of particular concern to public health.

“The Ministry of Environment had to admit they had actually done no data collection to know if the spill was going to be toxic, if it could harm children. They just had to say, ‘Oh yeah, don’t worry about it,’ even though they had no knowledge at all,” he said.

MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert

NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert said the March 2014 email shows how unprepared B.C. is to deal with potentially devastating oil and fuel spills. (CBC)

Chandra Herbert also said he thought it telling that the email states that there aren’t enough people on staff to address the gaps and deficiencies in B.C.’s ability to respond to spills.

“That statement in itself is pretty damning — that they know there are huge problems, but they don’t even have the staff available to write up what those problems are to even begin to solve them,” he said.

“They like to claim we have world-class spill response standards. Clearly we don’t, and this email proves it,” he said. “We’re just rolling the dice and hoping that none of these freighters spring leaks and that nobody has a crash.”

Other areas of concern raised included the effectiveness of spill reporting, the training and certification of responders, data collection and monitors, environmental restoration and compensation of loss of public use.

Under the compensation category, reference was made to the Burnaby Kinder Morgan pipeline spill and the closure of numerous parks and beaches for a “significant” time period.

The email notes that no monetary compensation was provided to the community for this loss of access, and that should a future spill encroach on U.S. land as well as B.C., the public on the American side of the border would be entitled to compensation.

A section headed “capability and capacity” was entirely redacted.

Minister acknowledges gaps

Environment Minister Mary Polak said the man who wrote the email is a key member of the land-based spill response team, which is in the process of integrating public feedback and developing a comprehensive strategy.

Many of the gaps that are discussed in the email, including human resources, will be addressed in the final plan, she said.

Environment Minister Mary Polak says there are gaps in the province’s oil spill response ability plan, and no one denies that. She says that is why a comprehensive plan is in development. (CBC)

“It’s very clear that if we are going to fill the gaps that are present, and that we acknowledge are present, it is going to take the role of industry in contributing to our capacity to prevent and to respond to spills. That has got to be the case. It can’t just be falling on the hands of government and therefore the taxpayer,” she said.

Polak also said the department has heard from many stakeholders, including First Nations and environmental groups, that the current polluter-pays system needs to be revised.

“We recognize that our current system of ‘polluter pay’ isn’t strong enough,” she said. “We’d like to see it strengthened… and its a key component of what we’re working for in that spills intentions paper.”

pipeline spill at their Sumas tank farm where, “no air monitoring or sampling was done to determine what the concentrations of chemicals in the air.”

According to the email, Kinder Morgan assured the public there were no health impacts from the spill despite having no scientific evidence to back up those claims, and in the face of community complaints of “nausea, headaches, strong odours, etc.”