Written for Vancity Buzz by the Hon. Joyce Murray, Member of Parliament for Vancouver-Quadra.
An estimated 2,800 litres of bunker oil spilled from the Japanese cargo ship Marathassa in English Bay on Wednesday, April 8.
After being notified of the spill by a local mariner, it took six hours for a Coast Guard crew to take action, and 12 hours before the City of Vancouver was notified of the spill. After nearly two days, we still did not know exactly what toxic substance was contaminating our waters, nor how much had sunk down to sea life on the ocean floor. It turned out to be Bunker C fuel, a substance so toxic that residents were warned not to help gather the pollution from beaches as it is harmful to health and requires hazardous waste disposal methods.
In the coming months, I hope a detailed investigation will be conducted into this unfortunate spill and the bungled response by the federal government. But this much is clear: the Conservative government failed to meet its responsibilities to protect both Metro Vancouver and the special marine ecology we cherish and enjoy.
We also know that the first emergency responders had to travel from Richmond and were not adequately equipped to deal with the spill, resulting in the six-hour delay. According to former Kitsilano Coast Guard Commander, Fred Moxey, the now shuttered Kitsilano base would have been able to respond within six minutes.
The closure of the Kitsilano base by the Conservative government in 2013 was met with significant criticism: thousands of citizens signed petitions, wrote letters, and spoke out. How frustrating that the harms of the Marathassa incident were magnified by the Conservative government and local Conservative MPs’ failure to heed the warnings of mariners and residents.
Vancouver has the busiest port in Canada and needs the fast response capability the Kitsilano Coast Guard members were known for. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau understands this, having studied, lived and worked in Vancouver for many years. That’s why he has vowed to re-open a full-service Coast Guard station in Vancouver if elected. Meanwhile, Industry Minister James Moore is continuing to insist that the spill response to the English Bay incident was “world class,” and denies any responsibility on the part of his Conservative government. Mr. Moore and other Lower Mainland Conservative MP’s should be held to account for defending Ottawa’s cuts to marine safety.
And Mr. Moore may want to re-visit his assertion that the Kits Base would not have made a difference in speeding up spill response, claiming it didn’t have enough booms to corral the spill. According to former Commander Moxey, that assertion is simply wrong.
By some standards, this was a relatively minor spill — in an easy-to-reach area, in calm weather— and yet the government was unprepared to respond properly. This raises a question: what if we had experienced a large-scale spill in a remote part of the Northern B.C. coast or in stormy weather? For years, Liberals have been raising concerns about inadequate oil spill response capabilities on the Pacific Coast, in the context of potential increases in crude oil tanker traffic. In 2010, I opposed the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline because of the environmental and economic risks of an oil spill, and tabled Bill C-606 to prevent tanker traffic in the North Coast inland waters, consistent with long term Liberal policy. Unfortunately for this bill, which had enough support to pass in the minority Parliament of the day, it was dropped from the Order Paper along with the rest of the bills in progress, when the 2011 election was called.
In addition to massive cuts to Coast Guard operations, the Conservative government cut the federal transport budget for marine safety from $82 million in 2009 to $57.5 million in 2015. The claim that this would not affect marine safety or services is patently false. Wise governments listen to the concerns of British Columbians and take responsibility when they have failed. Since the current federal government has done neither, citizens will soon have the chance to elect a new and better government; one that will work with local citizens to protect our precious coast and our way of life.
Connect with Joyce on Twitter at @JoyceMurray.