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Cohen inquiry points to flawed response to oil spills

A capsized barge floats in Robson Bight. B.C., Aug. 20, 2007, a breeding ground for killer whales.

Joe Alfred/ The Globe and Mail/Joe Alfred/ The Globe and Mail

A serious flaw in the government's response plans for oil and chemical spills on the West Coast has been highlighted at a federal inquiry investigating the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River.

The Cohen Commission heard this week that when a spill occurs off British Columbia, the Coast Guard leads the response, with support from Environment Canada. But neither agency has the capacity to assess the impact of contaminants on fish or marine mammals, Peter Ross, a research scientist at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' Institute of Ocean Sciences, testified.

And Dr. Ross, a toxicologist, said DFO is often sidelined during spill responses, with its experts either not involved, or ignored.

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One example he cited involved a 2007 accident in which a fuel barge sank in Robson Bight, a killer-whale sanctuary on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

In conference calls, Dr. Ross raised concerns about fuel contaminating whales, which were seen surfacing in the area, and filtering into clam beds used by local Indian bands. But his call for samplings were ignored.

"I had suggested . . . that we collect shellfish samples and, potentially, water samples, to conduct hydrocarbon measurements," Dr. Ross testified.

But he said enforcement officials on site, "were instructed not to," because the Coast Guard didn't think the barge owner, LeRoy Trucking, had the funds to pay for such a monitoring effort.

When an oil spill occurs, the party responsible is liable for cleanup costs, but the government can get stuck with the bill if the offender is unable to pay.

"I was frustrated that nobody else was seemingly in a position to be able to fund some of these things which I considered to be an important part of making sure that the . . . traditional food supply of local first nations was safe, that killer whales were protected, and that we were really understanding where these different types of hydrocarbons were going," Dr. Ross said.

He said rather than rely on his advice about the impact of fuels on the environment, the Coast Guard turned to "a one-page fact sheet" on diesel fuel cleanup that had been prepared by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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That sheet stated diesel fuel quickly dissipates and would likely have little environmental impact.

A diesel tanker truck was on the barge when it sank, but there were other fuel containers aboard, too, Dr. Ross said, and the threats posed by those contaminants were not addressed by the NOAA document.

"It was 17,000 litres of diesel . . . but almost 3,000 litres of heavy lubricants, several hundred litres of hydraulic oils, about 2,500 litres of gasoline, so to rely on a single fact sheet for diesel does not pay full credence . . . to the somewhat more complex loading on that barge," he said.

Among the documents entered as evidence, Wednesday and Thursday, was an e-mail exchange from 2007 in which Dr. Ross complained to colleagues that the government's spill-response protocol had left DFO lost in a "grey area," with Environment Canada ostensibly responsible for marine-impact assessment.

He complained, however, that Environment Canada "is not in a logistical or intellectual position to comprehensively address the marine fish/marine mammal habitat aspects . . . [and]we folks 'in the trenches' have witnessed the failings [of that system]. . . over the last 4 years."

In response to a question from Don Rosenbloom, a lawyer for two commercial fishing groups, Dr. Ross said the opinions expressed in the 2007 e-mail remain valid today.

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The Cohen Commission, which was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to investigate the collapse of sockeye in the Fraser River, also heard concerns raised about a proposed new fuel-loading facility for Vancouver International Airport, which would be located on the banks of the Fraser.

Responding to questions from Tim Leadem, a lawyer for the Conservation Coalition, Dr. Ross agreed a spill of jet fuel would have a serious environmental impact on prime sockeye habitat.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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