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B.C. minister says Coast Guard took more than a day to take control of Vancouver fuel spill

A spill response boat clears bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa anchored on Burrard Inlet.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia's Environment Minister has accused the Canadian Coast Guard of a lack of leadership, saying it took the agency that was supposed to be in charge of an oil spill on Vancouver's English Bay more than a day to assume control.

The spill, which occurred last Wednesday, has revealed potential gaps in the country's marine-response system at a time when major pipeline projects that would dramatically increase tanker traffic along the West Coast are being hotly debated. It has also spurred a round of finger-pointing among three levels of government.

Environment Minister Mary Polak told the B.C. legislature on Monday that in the event of a marine spill "we are led in a unified command structure by the federal government through the Canadian Coast Guard."

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However, the minister said the province and other emergency response agencies were forced to act outside their usual roles due to the Coast Guard's inaction.

"As a result of our repeated requests for an improvement in that situation, I can tell the members that the Coast Guard certainly stepped up their involvement, took back over the leadership of incident command as of Friday morning," Ms. Polak said.

A Ministry of Environment spokesman later said in a statement that a post-incident review will analyze "the early deficiencies … to ensure they are not repeated in the future."

"In the early stages of the response, there was inadequate leadership‎ from the coast guard, with respect to co-ordinating responses from various agencies within the unified command structure. Given the essential response activities under‎ the province's purview, we made the decision to immediately press ahead with our responsibilities outside of the usual structure within the incident command post," the statement read.

Coast Guard Commissioner Jody Thomas said at a news conference earlier on Monday that she was "enormously pleased" with her agency's response to the spill. Approximately 80 per cent of the spilled oil was recovered within 36 hours.

"Our co-ordinated response was immediate, measured and effective. We're on it, and it's working," she said.

Ms. Polak's critical comments are the latest to be directed at the Coast Guard and the federal government. B.C. Premier Christy Clark has accused Ottawa of not providing the "world class" response to spills that it promised. Federal Industry Minister James Moore has lauded the Coast Guard's work.

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Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has also been critical. The city was not alerted to the spill for approximately 13 hours, and later urged residents to avoid the water and beaches.

Exactly who was supposed to inform the city about the spill has become a point of contention.

Roger Girouard, the Coast Guard's assistant commissioner, has said provincial agency Emergency Management B.C. should have notified the city. "According to the protocol, the flow of information from us to the city is through EMBC," he said last week.

Ms. Clark has said that was not the province's responsibility.

Ms. Thomas on Monday said she could not clear up the matter.

"After we're finished the operation – because going through that now doesn't serve any purpose, it distracts from the excellent work that's being done on water. So all of that will be reviewed and examined with the partners in the room," she said.

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A mayoral spokesman said he believed more information on the notification process would be released at a council meeting on Tuesday morning.

Officials on Monday said they had zeroed in on the cause of the spill. Yvette Myers of Transport Canada said investigators had found evidence of mechanical problems with some of the valves in the piping system of the ship MV Marathassa. She said that caused oil to leak into the duct keel, near the bottom of the vessel. Ms. Myers said another issue – she did not say exactly what – caused the oil to be inadvertently discharged.

Ms. Thomas said the amount of oil still in the water is "negligible." Mr. Girouard last week estimated the amount of material that spilled to be between 2,700 litres and 3,000 litres. Owen Rusticus of Environment Canada on Monday called that figure a "conservative estimate."

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Based in Vancouver, Sunny has been with The Globe and Mail since November, 2010. More

B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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