Oops, I spilled it again: why Exxon history is repeating

As Saturday marked the 23rd anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, have we learned anything from the disaster?

As Saturday March 24th marked the 23rd anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the question arises whether the Canadian government has learned any lessons from the 1989 disaster that occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The answer appears to be a resounding “no,” given the support to expand Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline and the dramatic escalation in oil tanker traffic that will accompany it.

On the south coast of British Columbia, Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would see 229 oil tankers filled with tar sands bitumen annually transit from Burrard Inlet through the Salish Sea region as they head for hydrocarbon-hungry American and Asian markets.

The implications are enormous for the Georgia Basin-Puget Sound ecosystem. “This archipelago hosts wild salmon populations, migratory birds on the Pacific flyway, important estuaries, shellfish beds and the habitats of many rare, threatened or endangered marine and coastal species,” says Raincoast Conservation Foundation biologist Misty MacDuffee. “The Salish Sea is already suffering intense pressures from growth; chronic oiling and spills will only intensify the declining health of this ecologically fragile region. Further, the tanker route overlays critical habitat for our endangered southern resident killer whales. The Exxon Valdez oil spill fatally impacted two populations of Alaskan killer whales.”

“The Gulf Islands tanker route is also risky from a vessel traffic perspective. More than 400,000 vessel movements occur annually on the coast, and accidents such as collisions, groundings, and fires are common. Serious inadequacies in response capabilities have been identified by federal and provincial agencies that would hinder rescue and containment operations,” says Raincoast Marine Operations Coordinator Brian Falconer.

The south coast of B.C. relies heavily on the availability of American rescue tugs based out of Washington state to respond to incidents. Procedures between the B.C. government and the federal government to coordinate responses to large vessel incidents are not well harmonized.

A November 2010 article in the Winnipeg Free Press revealed that according to an internal audit, “The Canadian Coast Guard lacks the training, equipment and management systems to fulfill its duties to respond to offshore pollution incidents such as oil spills . . . The audit paints an alarming picture of an agency that would play a key role in Canada’s response to a major oil spill off the world’s longest coastline.” The article also identifies the relatively paltry budget of $9.8 million for the coast guard’s environmental response unit.

A version of this article was previously published at The Huffington Post on March 26, 2012.

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