E-mails reveal B.C. lacks adequate oil-spill response resources

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Day four of cleanup continues after 50 tonnes of bunker fuel spilled into a nearby estuary in Squamish, north of Vancouver, in 2006. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Day four of cleanup continues after 50 tonnes of bunker fuel spilled into a nearby estuary in Squamish, north of Vancouver, in 2006. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Justine Hunter

When a failure in Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline spilled 90,000 litres of crude oil at a tank farm near Abbotsford two years ago, then-environment minister Terry Lake assured the public that there was no health risk to the community, including nearby elementary school children.

But B.C. environment ministry officials now say there was no science to back up that claim.

The admission came to light in an internal e-mail exchange last March, released on the government’s open data website in response to a Freedom of Information request. In the documents, the director of the B.C. Environmental Emergency Program, Graham Knox, said the province doesn’t have the resources to track the many gaps in the province’s ability to respond to oil spills.

“We could point to hundreds of spills on an annual basis where gaps occurred or improvements are needed. Compiling such a report however would involve significant staff resources that we currently do not have,” he wrote.

Environment Minister Mary Polak said none of those gaps surprise her, but she said the province can’t shoulder the costs of prevention and clean-up alone.

“It’s very clear if we are going to fill the gaps that are present – that we acknowledge are present – it is going to take the role of industry in contributing to our capacity to prevent and respond to spills,” she told reporters. “It can’t just be falling on the hands of government and, in turn, taxpayers.”

One of the examples Mr. Knox cited in his e-mail was the Kinder Morgan spill at the Sumas tank farm, where the company failed to do the testing to back claims that there was no health risk to the public despite reports of nausea and headaches. Ministry officials found “no air monitoring or sampling was done to determine what the concentrations of chemicals in the air were to assure the public and provide scientific basis for the company’s claims that there were no health impacts.”

But it wasn’t just the company that offered reassurance. “At this point we are very happy with the response and no concern at this point has been raised to me in terms of health or the environment,” Mr. Lake was quoted in a CBC News report in January 2012.

In an interview on Monday, Mr. Lake, now minister of health, says he doesn’t recall the details but he believes he would have based his comments on advice from his own ministry staff. “It would be unusual for a minister to make that statement without the assurance from ministry officials.”

NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra-Herbert said the province has been far too trusting of industry for too long. “This is look-the-other-way environmental protection from this government,” he told reporters in Victoria.

“Terry Lake was out there based on pixie dust and good intentions, with no science to back him up, saying ‘your kids will be fine’ when he knew nothing.”

Mr. Knox was part of the team developing the B.C. government’s plans to address land-based oil spills. That work is still in progress. In his correspondence he said he could only provide “a small sampling” of concerns around the province’s ability to manage oil spills, including a lack of monitoring, inadequate restoration requirements and poor spill reporting.

Aside from the Kinder Morgan incident, he pointed to a string of spills where the response was deficient.

A Columbia Fuels tank truck crashed near a provincial park in 2011, dumping more than 40,000 litres of gasoline that leaked into the Goldstream River and wiped out a run of returning Chum salmon. Although the fuel company stepped up and promised to fund the restoration, the province is relying on Columbia Fuel’s goodwill. “Without clear rules and guidelines, the process has continued on and the responsible party could ultimately walk away if it so chose,” Mr. Knox warned.

In another example, CN Rail reported a small spill at a rail yard, he wrote. “Ministry staff subsequently discover there was actually a collision between locomotives and substantially more fuel released than reported and that the spilled materials were moving offsite.”

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