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Wake-up call

['Russell Wangersky']
['Russell Wangersky']

On April 8, a brand-new freighter, the MV Marathassa, began leaking oil into Vancouver's English Bay.

What happened afterwards should be eye-opening for anyone in a province that borders water and carries ships - as every Atlantic province does. A review of the cleanup found restrictive information-sharing rules and procedures, staff shortages and long-distance oversight created avoidable problems for the cleanup.
First, the blunt facts about the number of people available: "The (Canadian Coast Guard's) Environmental Response (ER) Program in the Western Region is currently undergoing a significant staff turnover, and has lost long-term employees and expertise to attrition and other staffing opportunities. The program is currently comprised of a group of 15 specialists. ... These jobs are demanding and require a high level of technical, management and leadership skills."
That led to a recommendation that you'd think would already be common sense: "The Canadian Coast Guard should ensure it has adequate staff to respond to a major marine pollution incident in any part of its region at any given time."
Complicating the Marathassa cleanup was the fact that the coast guard's specialists were already working on a different project. Luckily, a private response agency had decided to use word of a possible spill as an opportunity to launch an exercise. That got them on the water much more quickly. But even with a cleanup starting, the coast guard wasn't able to tell people what was happening; "approval for media releases typically requires national headquarters approval," the review notes.
The review recommended more common sense: "The (Canadian Coast Guard) should ensure accurate information is released ... as soon as possible regarding the type, quantity and fate and effects of a pollutant, including any information that is related to public health concerns," and "The CCG should develop an accelerated regional approval process with respect to factual operational information during an incident, similar to the current procedures for sharing information in search and rescue incidents."
Meanwhile, even the federal government's security rules were stalling the cleanup.
"It was evident within the Incident Command Post that the Government of Canada network security protocols prevented the sharing of vital information at a critical time. CCG and DFO staff were obligated to use personal phones, laptops and email accounts to share information with partners. The security impediments extended to the inability of partners to access printers and the CCG was compelled to purchase stand-alone printers to allow partners to print documents during the incident," the report pointed out.
And there's more: when the coast guard turned to Environment Canada for help, Environment Canada primarily offered its assistance by long distance.
"While EC continued to participate in Unified Command remotely via teleconference, it was noted by most partners that working remotely was ineffective and detrimental to the overall response." Environment Canada was first contacted on April 8. Its staff weren't on the ground until April 19.
"In the absence of the EC presence, the environmental partners were left to establish a lead amongst themselves and propose actions to Unified Command. However, this is not seen as the best approach and considered ineffective as several of those involved were not familiar with oil spill response and cleanup. Once EC was on site on April 19 for the resolution of the beach cleanup standards, they were seen as very helpful and positive, highlighting that it would have been beneficial to have had this presence and leadership throughout the incident," the report says.
Once again, the report's recommendation of feet on the ground is one that you'd expect would be a matter of course.
Oil spill cleanup is difficult enough in contained, calm areas: "International best practice of on-water oil spill recovery average rates in all weather conditions is 10-15 per cent, but under ideal conditions the recovery rate could exceed this amount," the report points out.
Keep in mind, then, that this was a relatively small spill; the oil on the water the next morning was estimated at 2,800 litres. It was calm, and response organizations were based in the immediate area.
Can we hope for that here on Canada's East Coast?
Hardly.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media's
Atlantic regional columnist.
 He can be reached at russell.wangersky@tc.tc
Twitter: @Wangersky

What happened afterwards should be eye-opening for anyone in a province that borders water and carries ships - as every Atlantic province does. A review of the cleanup found restrictive information-sharing rules and procedures, staff shortages and long-distance oversight created avoidable problems for the cleanup.
First, the blunt facts about the number of people available: "The (Canadian Coast Guard's) Environmental Response (ER) Program in the Western Region is currently undergoing a significant staff turnover, and has lost long-term employees and expertise to attrition and other staffing opportunities. The program is currently comprised of a group of 15 specialists. ... These jobs are demanding and require a high level of technical, management and leadership skills."
That led to a recommendation that you'd think would already be common sense: "The Canadian Coast Guard should ensure it has adequate staff to respond to a major marine pollution incident in any part of its region at any given time."
Complicating the Marathassa cleanup was the fact that the coast guard's specialists were already working on a different project. Luckily, a private response agency had decided to use word of a possible spill as an opportunity to launch an exercise. That got them on the water much more quickly. But even with a cleanup starting, the coast guard wasn't able to tell people what was happening; "approval for media releases typically requires national headquarters approval," the review notes.
The review recommended more common sense: "The (Canadian Coast Guard) should ensure accurate information is released ... as soon as possible regarding the type, quantity and fate and effects of a pollutant, including any information that is related to public health concerns," and "The CCG should develop an accelerated regional approval process with respect to factual operational information during an incident, similar to the current procedures for sharing information in search and rescue incidents."
Meanwhile, even the federal government's security rules were stalling the cleanup.
"It was evident within the Incident Command Post that the Government of Canada network security protocols prevented the sharing of vital information at a critical time. CCG and DFO staff were obligated to use personal phones, laptops and email accounts to share information with partners. The security impediments extended to the inability of partners to access printers and the CCG was compelled to purchase stand-alone printers to allow partners to print documents during the incident," the report pointed out.
And there's more: when the coast guard turned to Environment Canada for help, Environment Canada primarily offered its assistance by long distance.
"While EC continued to participate in Unified Command remotely via teleconference, it was noted by most partners that working remotely was ineffective and detrimental to the overall response." Environment Canada was first contacted on April 8. Its staff weren't on the ground until April 19.
"In the absence of the EC presence, the environmental partners were left to establish a lead amongst themselves and propose actions to Unified Command. However, this is not seen as the best approach and considered ineffective as several of those involved were not familiar with oil spill response and cleanup. Once EC was on site on April 19 for the resolution of the beach cleanup standards, they were seen as very helpful and positive, highlighting that it would have been beneficial to have had this presence and leadership throughout the incident," the report says.
Once again, the report's recommendation of feet on the ground is one that you'd expect would be a matter of course.
Oil spill cleanup is difficult enough in contained, calm areas: "International best practice of on-water oil spill recovery average rates in all weather conditions is 10-15 per cent, but under ideal conditions the recovery rate could exceed this amount," the report points out.
Keep in mind, then, that this was a relatively small spill; the oil on the water the next morning was estimated at 2,800 litres. It was calm, and response organizations were based in the immediate area.
Can we hope for that here on Canada's East Coast?
Hardly.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media's
Atlantic regional columnist.
 He can be reached at russell.wangersky@tc.tc
Twitter: @Wangersky

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