News reports of a recent oil spill recovery drill off the coasts of British Columbia and Washington State are shining a light on an alarming reality: that only about 15% of the oil is recovered after the average marine spill.
“A lot of that is non-recoverable, so it’s either evaporated or it’s dissipated into the water,” said Malcolm Lowry, communications manager with the privately-funded Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), in an interview with the Times Colonist in Victoria. “It’s not necessarily that that other part hasn’t been cleaned up. It’s just been absorbed by the environment.”
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The two-day drill off the coast of Port Angeles, Washington was conducted in a bid to ensure joint preparedness in the event of an oil spill in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Colonist reports.
“The primary goals of the drills were to familiarize each country with the other’s response equipment, ensure everyone can communicate to coordinate a response, and test border crossings with equipment and personnel,” the Colonist states. The spill response on the Canadian side was conducted by WCMRC employees, Victoria News reports, with the two coast guards on the scene in a supervisory capacity.
“We work with our vessels a lot,” Lowry told the Colonist, but the Canadian organization doesn’t interact with American vessels very often. “Will the valves connect? Will the pumps work? That’s the kind of stuff they’re testing.”
With thousands of deep sea vessels per year already navigating the international waters off the coasts of British Columbia and Washington state, and the potential for far more oil tanker traffic should the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion be built, worries about the potential for an oil spill are deepening.
Chris Genovali, Sidney, B.C.-based executive director of the Rainforest Conservation Foundation, described the environmental costs of a large spill as “staggering”. He recalled how the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska immediately devastated area populations of sea otters and seabirds that died of hypothermia, drowning, and poisoning, and likely compromised the health of generations of harbour seals and killer whales.
The response to a similar event along 27,000 kilometres of B.C. coastline has essentially been outsourced to WCMRC. The company is regulated by Transport Canada, but funded by “companies involved in the oil industry, such as oil-handling facilities and large vessels that call at Canadian ports,” The Colonist explains. The company is required to “have enough equipment to be able to clean up 10,000 tonnes of oil in 10 days and 500 metres of beach per day,” the paper adds, with crews instructed to “turn their attention to the shores only after the water has been cleaned.”The WCMRC’s original funders, now its shareholders and financiers, include Trans Mountain, Suncor Energy, Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, and Parkland Fuel, the exclusive marketer for Chevron fuel sold in Canada.