Unpredictability of spills and how we are addressing them

Under our new Healthy Waters Program, Raincoast is creating a spill response science capacity.

Spills of oil and chemicals into British Columbia’s freshwater and ocean environments have killed fish, degraded habitat, and led to closures of commercial, recreational and Indigenous fisheries. They’re bad for the environment, bad for the economy, and bad for communities.

It’s easy to forget the accidents of the past, and there are more than a few examples. Consider:

  • The 2005 Cheakamus River rail accident that released 40,000 litres of Sodium Hydroxide and killed 500,000 salmon and trout;
  • The 2007 rupture of the Trans Mountain pipeline by third party construction activities that sent 224,000 litres of crude oil into a Burnaby neighbourhood, with 40% draining into Burrard Inlet;
  • The 2015 spill of more than 3,000 litres of Bunker C fuel from the MV Marathassa into English Bay and Burrard Inlet that oiled beaches;
  • The 2016 sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart north of Bella Bella that spilled 110,000 litres of diesel and lubricants and choked off access to key harvesting areas for the Heiltsuk Nation.

And surprisingly, we always seem to struggle to learn from these accidents. Some poignant and lasting truths emerge from the fog of spills:

  • Major spills have happened and will continue to happen;
  • Each accident presents unique challenges, confounding the best-laid response plans of governments and industry;
  • Spill response plans focus on the impossible goal of cleaning up more than ~10-15% of any spill;
  • Responsive science capacity to confirm the source of a spill, track the fate of the spilled product, and monitor the recovery of ecosystem components routinely fails to be a priority.

Raincoast has launched a new Healthy Waters program to measure priority pollutants between land and sea. This community-oriented initiative will include measurements of hydrocarbons and other contaminants that spill into waterways, flow off streets, or are released from industry, effectively connecting land and sea. The Healthy Waters program will work with communities and First Nations to select and monitor contaminants in five water compartments: source water, tap water, urban runoff, fish habitat, and whale habitat.

However, the sudden and unpredictable nature of major spills, in either freshwater or marine environments, demands a more flexible and custom-tailored response capacity alongside the more regimented Healthy Waters. This capacity will complement – but not replace – the capacity of government agencies and industry, and is intended to deliver expert technical support to First Nations and communities. We will establish and maintain relationships and contribute to a team approach to overall preparations for spill response, monitoring, and documentation.

The Raincoast Oil and Chemical Spill Tracking File entails:

  • Being available for expert support to First Nations, government agencies and industry during a major spill;
  • The availability of sampling kits, safety gear and protocols to support the collection of samples from the scene of a spill;
  • A technical spill response capacity for both freshwater and marine waters through a Mobile Pollution Lab Vehicle, the marine operations platform SV Achiever, and a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB);
  • The availability of a responsive expert team for the forensic documentation of spill source, transport, fate and impact using high resolution fingerprinting analysis and advanced risk-based evaluation.

Being prepared on all fronts is key to limiting damage to the environment. This means investing in response and mitigation, cleanup, wildlife rescue, tracking and monitoring, and fingerprinting of product from the impacted area and from the suspected source. Spills may be avoidable and undesirable, but all-too-often, they happen. We can never be too ready.For more information on opportunities, please contact us at peter [at] raincoast [dot] org.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.