Lessons from the bunker fuel spill in Vancouver’s harbour

King Stephen – “Canada For Sale” by Royal Prerogative | Tim O’Brien, The Muse

King Stephen – “Canada For Sale” by Royal Prerogative. Photo is from a June 25, 2011 rally of some 3,000 Newfoundlanders on the St. John’s waterfront against the decision of the Harper government to close the Marine Rescue Centre. | Tim O’Brien, The Muse

Sometime in the afternoon of April 8, bunker fuel started leaking from a ship anchored in English Bay in the outer harbour of the Port of Vancouver as it waited to load its cargo of grain at the docks. At 5:10 pm, a recreational boater noticed a large oil slick and called 911. The call was passed on to the Canadian Coast Guard, the designated lead agency for incidents like this. A Port Metro Vancouver boat appeared on the scene around 6:00 pm. Also at 6:00 pm, the Coast Guard alerted the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation – a private company set up to handle harbour spills – which was officially activated at 8:00 pm, arriving on scene at 9:25 pm. The Coast Guard initially reported that an oil-absorbing boom was secured around the vessel by midnight. However, it later reported that this was not done until 5:53 am on the morning of April 9. Meanwhile, the oil slick had spread throughout the harbour and onto surrounding beaches. It took 48 hours for the oil to be identified as bunker C, an extremely heavy, toxic and viscous form of fuel that most freighters use. All this took place just two weeks before Earth Day, April 22.

This bunker fuel spill took place in the context of two contradictory and simultaneous trends in the economic agenda of the financial oligarchy with respect to the Vancouver Port: the intensification of port activity and the massive cutbacks in the marine safety network.

Cuts and plans for more cuts to the marine safety network

It is evident that the efficacy of the Canadian Coast Guard has been seriously undermined by closures and cutbacks under the federal Conservative government. Within sight of the ship that leaked the bunker fuel is the former Kitsilano Coast Guard station on Jericho Beach, closed in February 2013 (saving $700,000 a year for the federal Conservatives in their quest for the holy grail of a balanced budget). Fred Moxy, the former commander of the Kitsilano station, said that the response time to the spill would have been minutes instead of hours if the station had still been open. Retired Coast Guard Captain Tony Toxopeus, a coxswain who worked out of Kitsilano, said the base was equipped with a purpose-built oil pollution response vessel, 300 metres of self-inflating boom and other equipment, and crews were trained regularly to deal with oil spill response. “As soon as we saw there was bunker oil we would have hit the alarm button and got moving,” he said. “We could have backed the boat in, towed the boom there and been alongside the boat in 30 minutes.”

One year before the closure of the Kitsilano base, six regional offices of the Environmental Emergencies Program of Environment Canada were closed across Canada, including in Vancouver, leaving only an office in Montreal and in Gatineau, Quebec. Sixty jobs were cut.

RELATED: Harper’s mayday mayhem: Newfoundlanders demonstrate against Harper government’s wrecking agenda

Unifor, the union representing Coast Guard communications officers has raised concerns about further budget cuts to the West Coast marine safety network. “When a serious pollution incident happens, quick notification and response is key to limiting the spread of pollutants,” said Allan Hughes, western director of Unifor Local 2182. “The Harper government is dismantling the West Coast’s prevention and emergency response system that has been in place for decades.” The Vancouver Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre (MCTS) is scheduled to close on May 6, along with the Regional Marine Information Centre. With the closure of the MCTS centre next month, the Coast Guard will no longer be able to provide anchorage assistance to ships, including oil tankers.

These closures are all the more reprehensible in view of the vast expansion of port activity that is taking place.

Intensification of port activity

A Government of Canada map of the the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor illustrates the central role of the British Columbia ports and related infratsructure development extending into the Prairie provinces to facilitate the export ambitions of the oil, energy and forestry monopolies. Announced in 2006, it has involved 47 federal projects valued at over $3.5 billion in a “public-private partnerships” with the four western provinces and the big monopolies.

A Government of Canada map of the the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor illustrates the central role of the British Columbia ports and related infrastructure development extending into the Prairie provinces of Canada to facilitate the export ambitions of the oil, energy and forestry monopolies. Announced in 2006, it has involved 47 federal projects valued at over $3.5 billion in a “public-private partnerships” with the four western provinces and the big monopolies. (Click to enlarge)

Since the election of the federal Conservatives in 2006, the Vancouver port has undergone a vast expansion under the umbrella of a federal government-funded plan called the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative. More dock and shipping facilities have been and are being built along with more railroads, highways, and bridges to service a vast increase in the movement of commodities for export, including grains and grain oils, coal, sulphur (a by-product of western Canada’s oil extraction industry), chemicals, lumber and paper products and (to a lesser extent) manufactured goods. The Kinder Morgan corporation has an application before the National Energy Board (NEB) to expand pipelines to carry bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta to Vancouver, which would result in a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic through the harbour, and a concomitant increase in large-scale, even more deadly toxic spills. Rather than merely sitting at anchor in English Bay, oil tankers that would receive this oil would have to squeeze through the narrow shallow Second Narrows channel with less than two metres of under-keel clearance during a slack-water high-tide window lasting less than 20 minutes. Both the federal Conservatives and the provincial Liberals are supporting the application by Kinder Morgan. The Kinder Morgan group is refusing to release details of its emergency response plan even to local governments, citing “personal, commercial and security reasons,” and the federal regulator sided with that corporation when the City of Vancouver petitioned the NEB to release this critical information.

The MV Marathassa, the ship that leaked the bunker fuel on April 8, was brand new, built in Japan in February of this year, sailing under management of Alassia NewShips, a Greece-based ship management corporation. The ship had departed from Korea on its maiden voyage. According to Transport Canada, the spill appears to have been caused by mechanical problems with the ship’s pumping system combined with a valve leak that sent the fuel into the water instead of being contained in the ship. Taking into account the general intensification of working conditions under neo-liberalism globally, one may well suspect that work speed-ups in ship construction along with a lack of sufficient training and number of ship personnel could have played a part in the mishap. The owners and managers of ships have no vested interest in avoiding or reporting spills (the managers of the Marathassa at first denied that the spill was from their ship). The potential for causing spills and damage is just part of doing business, for which they take out insurance to protect against financial liability. There is a $28-million liability cap on the ship owner’s contributions, while $162 million is available through the Canadian Ship-Source Oil Pollution Fund, which can be used if owner contribution caps are exceeded. But as Penny Ballem, Vancouver City Manager said, “There’s no guarantee that we will get [back] every nickel we have spent on the clean-up.”

Cuts to scientific investigation into long-term effects of oil spills

Along with the cuts to marine communication and emergency response capacity, the federal government has diminished the capacity of scientists to study and understand the long-term effects of the spillage of oil and other toxic material on the health of marine life. The federal Conservatives cut millions in funding from the Department of Fisheries in 2012, and more than 50 scientists lost their jobs.

Peter Ross was one of those scientists – his marine toxicology program was shut down. He told the Canadian Press in an April 16 interview that, “There is no official clarity around who is to monitor the effects of a spill,” adding that there is a major gap in research and readiness because of federal cuts to science programs. Ross noted that there is no cohesive long-term monitoring of British Columbia’s coastal ecosystems, and the lack of baseline data makes it difficult for scientists to assess the spill’s impact. “We think there is a gap in terms of our capacity to understand the ocean, document our impact on the ocean and consequently that renders very, very difficult our ability to protect the ocean,” he said. “These sorts of spills simply underscore out lack of understanding and preparedness for anything like this.”

Provincial Liberals say, “we could do it better”

During the bunker fuel spill and its clean-up, the provincial Liberals have been vociferous critics of the Coast Guard under the federal Conservatives. Premier Christy Clark on April 10 said, “Somebody needs to do a better job of protecting the coast, and the Coast Guard has not done it […] We could do it better.” Yet the Clark Liberals, along with the federal Conservatives, are enthusiastic apologists for an expansion of the transport and export of bitumen and other raw resources through the Port of Vancouver. No other avenue of economic development is offered for consideration, nor have they proffered any concrete plan for preventing or mitigating the destruction and disasters that would accompany the expansion of primary resource exploitation. The message, “Trust us, we can manage things better,“ is the same message that the cartel political parties always give, while attempting to divert attention from the destruction of the natural and social environment taking place under their noses.

Drawing the warranted lessons: Who is capable of managing the economy?

The chaotic events around the bunker fuel spill demonstrate that the monopolies and heads of finance capital (along with their loyal political parties) are incapable of managing the economy in a way that does not harm the interests of the majority of the members of the society. They are incapable of developing the economy in an all-sided manner. They interfere with the ability of members of the working class and Indigenous nations who are capable of managing the economy and natural environment for the benefit of all. And despite their false promises that they can learn the needed lessons from their “mistakes” (like President Obama who said after the latest killings of civilians by U.S. drone strikes in the Middle East that the U.S. unlike other nations “can learn from its mistakes”) they have proved again and again that they cannot learn from their misadventures. However, in their insanity, they keep repeating the same dysfunctional behaviour while expecting a different result. The only lesson they are capable of learning from these events is the imperative to try to conceal the disasters they create, and to stifle by any means (through Bill C-51 and other measures) the growing opposition from those adversely affected by their destructive actions. It is only the working class, Indigenous nations, and collectives of the peoples of Canada and Quebec who have the potential to learn the needed lessons and who are capable of turning things around.

(With files from Canadian Press, Metro News, rabble.ca, 24 Hour News, Times Colonist, The Tyee, Vancouver Sun)

Source: TML Weekly, April 25, 2017, No. 17

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