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Polluter-pay legislation tops plans for new oil spill response strategy

A Coast Guard hovercraft helps contain spilled oil and diesel fuel after a tugboat sank at a dock at Britannia Beach near Vancouver on May 9, 2008.

Brian Thompson/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government is considering establishing an industry-backed fund to cover the clean-up costs of environmental spills on land, Environment Minister Terry Lake said Tuesday after meeting with transport industries.Two separate oil pipeline projects through the province and plans for natural gas expansion have put British Columbia's environment laws under scrutiny.

The minister met with representatives from 13 different organizations to discuss spill response plans, including the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission and the Railway Association of Canada.

"We do think there should be a fund available that can be used to make sure the environment is remediated to the fullest extent possible and that the taxpayers aren't left to pay for that," Lake told reporters.

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Lake said B.C. is looking at different models for the clean-up fund in various jurisdictions, such as the federal fund used to clean up marine spills.

The Environment Ministry released a "policy intentions paper" in November and laid out guiding principles for reform.

Among them, the government is looking for a polluter-pay system – and there are gaps to be filled, Lake said.

The existing provincial environmental emergency program receives about 3,500 notices of environmental emergencies each year, ranging from home-based oil accidents to overturned tanker trucks, train derailments and spills on water.

"We think the regime we have in place at the moment is good, but we do see all of this economic activity coming and so we need to be proactive and get out in front of that with a plan that recognizes we'll be seeing more activity happen as we move products through British Columbia," he said.

"We want to make sure that the plans we have in place are on par with anything around the world."

Federally, the shipping industry is mandated to fund the Western Canada Marine Response Corp., which responds to about 20 marine spills a year at a cost of about $5.3-million.

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Brenda Kenny, president of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, said B.C. has a world-class regime in place already "but there's always room for improvement."

Kenny, whose industry is feeling the heat of ongoing protests against the proposed Northern Gateway and TransMountain oil pipeline projects, said it's important that members of the public understand the emergency plans in place.

She said it shouldn't be up to taxpayers to cover the cost if there is an event.

"We're certainly supportive of that."

The meeting involved Transport Canada, Environment Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard, as well as the B.C. Trucking Association and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Lake said they will now form a working group ahead of a two-day symposium planned in Vancouver in March. Within "a year or so" Lake believes government will move ahead with legislation.

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The minister said he welcomes input from environmental groups and the public, but he has no plans to meet specifically with other groups prior to the meetings in March.

The B.C. government has set out five conditions that the Northern Gateway would have to meet in order to gain provincial approval, including a "world-class" spill response plan.

Nikki Skuce, of the environmental group ForestEthics, said the discussion needs to go beyond who pays.

"While I appreciate that the government is meeting with industry leaders, such as CAPP and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, for policy input, their definition of 'world class' spill response standards will differ dramatically from those of First Nations, fisheries operators, and other potentially impacted communities who have not been invited to meet with the ministry," Skuce said.

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