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Canadians get their hands dirty in the Gulf

Crews work to clean up oil washed ashore at Pensacola Beach in Florida.

Michael Spooneybarger/AP

Phil Trasolini wants to make one thing clear: he is not the saviour of the Gulf of Mexico.

"We're not the cavalry come in to save the day," says the logistics manager at Burrard Clean Operations, a Burnaby, B.C.-based oil spill response company. "We're a small piece of the puzzle."

That may be true, but tucked into the sea of Americans that has washed onto the Gulf coast to clean up the spill, a small contingent of Canadians is playing an important role. Mr. Trasolini's group is helping to operate the complex supply system feeding the monstrous cleanup effort. Another Canadian company is putting on extra shifts at a factory manufacturing the skimming equipment that is in such short supply on the Gulf of Mexico.

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And yet another group is engaged in the effort to spot oil along the coast and dispatch cleanup crews there. The Canadian directing that effort, Ed Owens, works for a U.S. company, Polaris Applied Sciences. He runs 15 survey teams, who travel the coast in helicopters, airboats and ATVs to document and report where oil has reached shore.

"This group is the eyes of the whole command," he says. "And I've got eight Canadians. Isn't that interesting?"

There is no real rationale for the Canadian presence, save that these are skilled people: Mr. Owen has worked with them before, and trusts them.

Similarly, Burrard Clean was called in because it has a mutual aid agreement with MSRC, the massive U.S. contractor that is co-leading the cleanup effort. When MSRC needed extra bodies, Burrard Clean was a natural fit. It now has 13 people working on the gulf in all four states -- Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana -- mostly assigned to the staging areas that have served as the outdoor warehouses for the vast quantities of goods and equipment that are being marshalled for the cleanup.

The work by Canadians on the spill has not been without snags: Burrard Clean's staff, for example, cannot yet touch the oil because of the time-consuming process to gain approval under U.S. health and safety regulations.

Manufacturers have not encountered that problem. North Vancouver-based Aqua-Guard Spill Response makes oil skimmers, a product that has experienced incredible demand as U.S. authorities struggle to bring enough water-based cleaning capacity to cover the vast Gulf of Mexico.

"It's just non-stop," said Ron Bowden, international sales manager for the company. "We're one of the suppliers to BP in the gulf, so the phone is ringing off the hook."

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The company sells its systems all over the world, and has contacted long lists of previous customers to look for spare equipment that could be deployed to the gulf. But oil-skimmers are like fire trucks, and those who own them either will not or legally cannot let them go. As a result, Aqua-Guard is scrambling to build new skimmers, hiring staff and adding night and weekend shifts.

"Basically our production is going full-on, and they're being sold," Mr. Bowden said. "There's a backlog now of orders coming in. It's tough to keep up, but we're doing the best we can."

For those involved in the spill, it is difficult work, with an uncertain schedule and uncertain timeline. On the Gulf coast, people take shifts until they are too rundown to continue. Some go for weeks without a break.

It's also, surprisingly, not entirely good for business. Mr. Owens, for example, recalls the four years he spent responding to the Exxon Valdez spill. His normal work, the kind that can sustain an oil consultant who drafts spill plans for major companies for years, fell into disarray.

"When that ended I didn't have any clients," he said.

Still, the spill work has provided a unique perspective on one of the most important human activities on the globe at the moment. Mr. Owen's teams have ground surveyed more than 1,000 kilometres of coast, and aerially overlook between 8,000 and 15,000 a week.

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Only a small fraction of the entire coast has been affected, and much of it only lightly so, he says.

"Shoreline impact has been absolutely minimal," he said. "We could be out of here before Christmas."

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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