Saturday, April 29, 2006

BC Ferries Walks Away from Spill, Heads Towards Bank

The latest report from the field indicates that BC Ferries has decided to let mother nature take care of the Queen of the North oil spill, even though diesel is said to still be leaking from the wreck at the rate of 1-4 litres per hour. Also, even though the Transportation Safety Board is preparing to send another mini-submarine down to the wreck, this latest mission will not have an environmental component.

Meanwhile, the BC Ferry Commissioner, Martin Crilly, has allowed BC Ferries to declare the sinking of the QOTN a situation involving force majeure. The practical effect of this designation allows the ferry company to collect about $45,000 per day in subsidies for the QOTN ferry route until May 18, even though the ferry is 1200 feet below the surface of the ocean. Press reports estimate that in total BC Ferries will collect $2.5 million as a result of this administrative decision. Presumably, if an inquiry eventually determines that criminal negligence was involved in the sinking, then the money would have to be returned, under the well known common law principle that a criminal must not profit from his crimes. Also, one wonders whether all those businesses and individuals adversely affected by the disruption of service resulting from the sinking will be eligible for government compensation as well.

There is no word yet as to whether BC Ferries will be fined under Canadian marine environmental protection laws for unlawfully discharging oil into the marine environment, or whether an exemption will be granted here as well. Nor is it entirely clear who is paying for the oil spill cleanup costs, which already exceed one million dollars. One report from a source close to the scene seemed to indicate that the BC taxpayer was footing the bill, much as it did for the Fast Cat super ferry debacle a few years ago. So much for the polluter pays principle.

Stay tuned to this blog for continuous updates on this curious saga, which seems to take different twists and turns each day. Welcome to the whacky world of BC politics, where the ship of state is still in the hands of a man previously convicted for drunk driving. Call it "Tanker A on the Rocks", if you will.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Queen of the North Oil Spill Blog Generates Heated Response

More than one month after the Queen of the North ferry sank off Gil Island, the environmental aspects of the incident, which this blog has focussed on, are starting to generate feedback. Within the past three days, three sets of anonymous comments have been posted on the blog by someone ( perhaps more than one person ) who obviously is or has been involved in the response operation. Readers can access the comments by scrolling down the page to the end of each article. I'll just summarise the comments here, and provide a bit of a rebuttal where I feel it is warranted.

The gist of the comments is that the amount of oil spilled is minimal, that it is not in any case recoverable, and, above all, that it is having minimal impact on marine life and shorelines in the area.The diesel in question is said to evaporate rapidly, and what doesn't evaporate becomes weathered and disappears within half a day.

We are also told that chronic pollution near our ports or indeed anywhere along the coast of BC is far worse than anything coming from the Queen of the North wreck. Furthermore, the claim is made that this is just the latest in a series of wrecks off the BC coast that either has leaked oil, is leaking oil, or will eventually leak oil. What, then, is all the fuss about, the commenter wonders?

The latest comment suggests that over the course of the first week of the response effort, only about 20 litres of oil was recovered, at a cost of one million dollars. The commenter goes on to suggest that as a result of message boards such as this one, and also because of alleged "false media coverage", the incident has been politicised. We are told that money shouldn't be wasted on trying to recover oil that is basically unrecoverable, and that deploying protective boom is the only response strategy that's working right now.

This last commenter obviously has some first hand experience with the incident, because he or she claims that the oil comes up in drops the size of a pea which, within the space of about 30 seconds, explodes into a four foot plus rainbow sheen visible from the air and from boats. However, it cannot be recovered, will be visible for under four hours, and will then become invisible to the naked eye.

With this in mind, the commenter wonders whether this is a good way to spend taxpayers' money, risking the health and safety of workers in the process, just because of the optics. We are told not to come back later on and complain that the operation cost the taxpayers a lot of money.

My response to these comments is as follows: great, you have added a lot of useful information, but where were you a month ago when this kind of info was sorely needed and scarcer than a bikini in January in Tuktoyaktuk? So, now we know how much oil was recovered ( virtually nil ), that it cost a whack of money ( a cool million ) to even try, and that the current on-the-water operation is being paid for by BC taxpayers. That latter point in particular is news to me; what ever happened to the polluter pays principle? In other words, how come BC Ferries, a private entity, is not paying for the response operation?

Now that this kind of information is out there in the public domain, perhaps now, belatedly, we can have an informed and intelligent debate about the extent and utility of a continued response operation. The need for a sustained monitoring program would seem obvious, and the potential for avoiding damage by deploying protective boom would also seem compelling, but is there any need to do anything else, particularly if no other strategies are said to work? Personally, this is the first time I heard that the authorities are doing anything else. What, pray tell, are they doing? Do they have any vessels, booms, skimmers and sorbent pads out on the water?; if so, you could have fooled me. But assuming they do, is there any net environmental benefit from resorting to these strategies, or is this just another case of PR boom being deployed, showing the flag, looking busy, etc? You know, all the typical response options that generate positive media coverage and keep the public happy, but have virtually no positive impact on the marine environment?

So, let's hear more of your comments, and let's here more from the authorities, who have done a rather pathetic job of communicating with the public until now, more than one month after the incident occurred.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Queen of the North Oil Spill: "An Orca Runs Through It"

Hermann Meuter and Janie Wray, reserchers at Cetacealab on Gil Island, near the site of the Queen of the North ferry wreck, report on the journal portion of their web site what is believed to be the first sighting of a killer whale swimming through the diesel sheen from the leaking ferry. According to the Cetacealab account, yesterday evening at around 6 PM A32, a 22 year old male, was seen surfacing "right in the middle of a 25 feet wide sheen of diesel!!" This event apparently occurred in Wright Sound, south of the entrance to Grenville Channel.

This observation would seem to add a whole new dimension to the response operation, since until now the authorities have argued that the impact of the diesel on wildlife has been minimal. Granted, no one knows what the impact of swimming through a thin sheen of diesel fuel will be, or indeed whether the other members of the same matriline also waded through oil. However, Hermann has also indicated in an email to me tonight that earlier today he and Janie spotted the entire A5 pod of northern residents in the area; this pod consists of approximately a dozen individuals. Thus, we could well be about to witness a live and unfortunate experiment on the impact of oil on a group of whales. Let's hope it does not happen.

In terms of later arrivals of northern residents, Hermann reports that several of the A-Clan pods, such as A12, A30, A4, B and C, are likely to arrive in May and June. He also says there are occcasional visits from G-Clan pods, and last year almost all of the R's showed up as well.

Humpbacks have already started arriving in the area, according to Hermann: three individuals are said to have been spotted in Caamano Sound last Saturday. Hermann also informs me that contrary to popular belief, humpbacks do not just pass through on their way to Alaska. Instead, a group of between forty and fifty resident humpbacks tends to reside in the area during the summer months. Apparently the bulk of them tend to arrive in July.

Stay tuned to the Cetacealab journal, as well as this blog, for an update from Hermann and Janie as to what they witnessed today, Tuesday, out on the water from the unique vantage point of their boat.

Who's Looking Out for Marine Mammals Swimming Through "Queen of the North" Diesel Fuel?

The BC Environment Ministry released another press release on April 10, this time announcing in bold headlines that the diesel sheen from the Queen of the North spill was decreasing. What they fail to point out anywhere in the update is that 20 days into the incident, fuel and perhaps other lubricants continue to leak from the sunken vessel. Not only that, but Hermann Meuter, co-director of Cetacealab, a whale research station on Gil Island, near the site of the disaster, reports that all three members of the A36 matriline of northern resident killer whales "...were in contact with diesel fuel last evening (Monday). A32 was seen to surface right in the middle of a 25 feet sheen of diesel". This report comes from a boat from Hartley Bay which had been tracking the whales in Wright Sound. Tuesday morning, Hermann and his partner were "...getting ready to head out to monitor the situation" on the water. A full description as to what happened last night, and what they find today, is promised for their web site Cetacealab later today .

The question therefore arises as to what, if anything, the authorities are doing about the possible impact of the oil on the marine mammals in the vicinity, including not just the orcas but also the 50 plus Pacific white-sided dolphins that showed up last week? Are they at all concerned about the potentially negative impact this oil could have on these animals? If so, what are they doing to mitigate that impact? For instance, they say they are monitoring the spill from the air every second day; but, are they relating this information to the location and path of the marine mammals in the area? Also, have they considered hazing as a means of keeping the whales and dolphins away from the sheen?

In a CanWest News Service article posted on the web site Tuesday, the claim is made that no one knows at this stage how much of the 220,000 litres of diesel, 20,000 litres of light oil and 220 litres of hydraulic oil on board the vessel has leaked out so far. Incident Commander Lance Sundquist admits, however, that fuel is still leaking from the ship. And although he doesn't know how much is leaking, he says it is likely to be "a fairly minimal amount". According to the article, last Saturday "two diesel sheens of 500 litres were spotted from a flight over the site". One of these sheens was apparently five to ten metres wide, while the other was approximately one metre wide. The article goes on to state that "(t)he fuel leak is still being checked by boat each day". Meanwhile, B. C. Ferries are reported in the same web article as apparently “meeting with two European salvage companies to discuss the possibility of removing diesel from the vessel, or other ways of preventing long-term damage".

Who can say for sure that if the whales and dolphins swim through the diesel sheen they won't be adversely affected? What about the potential effect of the oil on their eyes? And what if they inhale the vapours? Can the authorities, specifically the federal authorities responsible for protection of the marine environment in general, and of marine mammals in particular, reassure us that the oil on the surface is so thin, or so spread out, or in such small quantities, that its impact is likely to be minimal? Because one thing we know about diesel fuel is that although half will evaporate within 24 hours, the other half is quite toxic.

In short, there are all sorts of unanswered questions concerning the fate and wellbeing of the marine mammals in the area of the Queen of the North spill, but very few answers. The latest BC Environment Ministry press release does say that "A Wildlife Response Plan was developed to address any wildlife potential impacted by the fuel spill". What does this mean: that the plan will only be implemented once wildlife are impacted? That's what it sounds like to this observer.

The fact of the matter is that if whales and dolphins are swimming through diesel sheen, as they certainly appear to be, a plan should be operationalised now. In other words, don't wait until dead or dying marine mammals start washing up on shore before implementing a plan. This is a variation of the old adage to the effect that "life is what happened to me while I went about making my plans!"

A step in the right direction would be for people such as Paul Ross, an oil spill and wildlife expert from Environment Canada, his counterpart, Karen Hutton, from DFO, Peter Ross, a marine mammal toxicologist from the Institute of Ocean Sciences, or John Ford, a killer whale expert from the Pacific Biological Station, to come forward and say something along the lines of:

"We are very concerned about a recent report that killer whales have been observed swimming through diesel fuel from the Queen of the North spill in Wright Sound. Our strategy to deal with this disturbing development includes monitoring the marine mammals and their journey in and around the oil, looking for any sign that they or their prey may be adversely impacted, and examining possible measures, including hazing techniques, to mitigate these impacts. Our surveillance program includes aircraft and vessels, working in tandem. We will continue to implement this program so long as marine mammals are in the area, or until such time as the leaks are staunched."

Who knows, maybe all this is being done as we speak, but if it is, it sure is being kept top secret. Okay, so the authorities have a boat out there every day, and an airplane evvery second day, but what are these assets doing to specifically address the issue of the marine mammals threatened by the oil? The public has a right to know. Moreover, the community of Hartley Bay, plus the researchers at Cetacealab, shouldn't have to do this kind of protection work on their own, with their own vessels, fuel and volunteer commitment. This is what we pay our taxes for, so that organisations with the skills, capacity and mandate to get out there on the water and in the air actually do their job, not because they are hounded into doing something by people like myself and Hermann Meuter, but because they are on the ball, on top of things, anticipating and responding if and as required.

So, what we need is someone to come forward and accept responsibility for this issue of the marine mammals and the oil spill, to tell us what the situation is, what the risks are, and what, if anything, they plan to do about it. Is it to much to expect that a provincial ( or federal, for that matter ) press release deal with this issue, instead of burying one's head in the sand like an ostrich?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Eye in the Sky Misses the Boat At Height of Queen of the North Oil Spill

In an article written by Laura Levin and appearing in the April 7 edition of the Esquimalt News, the rather astonishing claim is made that because of bureaucratic bungling, a Government of Canada airplane decked with sophisticated equipment to detect oil slicks from the air was not deployed during the most critical period following the recent Queen of the North oil spill.

Environment Canada owns a DC3 equipped with a raft of high-tech equipment designed to detect marine oil spills from the air. The plane and its crew are said to have left Ottawa March 22, the same day the ferry sank. That's quite a quick initial response, although it took an incredible three days for the plane to reach Vancouver Island. For some reason, the plane only flew five hours each day. At first blush, it seems like a better idea would have been to put the plane on a CN freight train to Prince Rupert. And you think I'm kidding!

Once on Vancouver island, one might have expected the DC3 to reach Gil Island, site of the ferry disaster, or perhaps Prince Rupert, in another day or so. Think again, partner! It seems that because the contract of the operator, who is hired to fly and maintain the plane, was set to expire at the end of the fiscal year, March 31, the aircraft ended up sitting on a runway at Victoria International Airport for several days at least, until a one month extension was finally granted. It is unclear from the newspaper article whether the plane eventually did get deployed to the site of the incident, and whether it's gear did end up getting used. In this context, it is interesting to note that, as reported in yesterday's blog, as recently as two days ago a float plane observed sheens of oil still present in the general vicinity of the wreck.

Levin writes that the plane's "...crew stay(ed) in Sidney hotels during some of the most critical moments of the cleanup effort". Bryan Healey, the contractor operating the plane for Environment Canada's Environmental Technology Centre in Nepean, Ontario, is quoted in the article as saying that "The whole exercise could have been enhanced if they (had) used the airplane to map the oil and tell the people on the ground where it is". But perhaps the best quote of all comes from Gitga'at First Nation Chief Bob Hill:

"If there is high-tech equipment that could have been used, this government has the responsibility to do what is in their power to guage (sic) the impact of a spill of any kind. The cleanup has been 50 percent - the bare minimum. The over-flight of high technology equipment should have happened and should continue to happen for a short time - why else would the government invest in that type of equipment if it's not utilised?"

You said it, Bob! The first few days after a spill occurs are generally the most critical in a spill response effort. There is a brief window of opportunity that you don't want to miss. You want to be able to detect and track the oil as soon as possible, before it spreads. The sophisticated sensors on board the DC3 allow technicians to detect oil that the naked eye misses, or confuses for something else. Once a slick is identified from the air, spill trajectory analysis follows. A timely and efficient response effort depends on coordinated and synchronised action between the plane, vessels on the water and shoreline cleanup crews. If all these factors are present, then the containment and recovery operation can, in theory at least, stand a fighting chance of succeeding. Unfortunately, in the case of the Queen of the North spill, in the absence of the DC3 on scene, they missed the boat, to choose a rather appropriate metaphor.

To be fair, the authorities were lucky that the spill involved, for the most part, it seems, light diesel, fifty percent of which evaporates within the first 24 hours. Diesel fuel is, however, quite toxic: it turns out that it is the vapours that tend to pose the greatest threat to wildlife in the vicinity of a diesel spill. To date, there does not seem to be any evidence that vapours are present, let alone having a deleterious effect, off of Gil Island. Thus, so far at least, environmental damage appears to have been relatively minimal. What on earth would have happened if the spill had involved large amounts of thick black crude, and it took the remote sensing plane five days to arrive on scene?; one shudders to think!

Still, because the diesel sheen originating from the Queen of the North is invisible from the water, but detectable from the air, and since a float plane apparently spotted diesel sheens just two days ago, perhaps the DC3 should be up there now, doggedly going aboout its business. There would seem to be an obvious need for this kind of operation at the present time, since Hermann Meuter of Cetacealab reports that the killer whales have started to return, and more than 50 Pacific white-sided dolphins were spotted in the vicinity of the spill as recently as yesterday morning.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Pacific White-sided Dolphins Spotted in Vicinity of Queen of the North Oil Spill Site

Hermann Meuter, co-director of Cetacealab on Gil Island, about 40 kms from the site of the recent Queen of the North ferry incident, is somewhat concerned about the fate of a large group of Pacific White-sided dolphins in the area. Hermann spotted more than fifty of these dolphins early Friday morning, spread out over the entire width of Whale Channel, between York Point and Borde Island. Hermann believes that the dolphins most likely traveled through streaks of diesel sheen which were spotted in the area on Thursday. He says the dolphins "were not very active" when he saw them, although he has no idea whether they were adversely impacted by the oil.

Hermann received the report of the diesel sheen sightings from Marven Robinson of the nearby community of Hartley Bay. The sheens in question were spotted Thursday afternoon from a float plane off of Shrub Point. They are on the east side of Gil Island, in Whale Channel, parallel to Gil Island and stretching towards Princess Royal Island. Burrard Clean are thought to have sent some boats to Shrub Point to check things out, but found no evidence of sheen. Hermann reports, however, that diesel is still leaking from the sunken wreck.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Queen of the North Oil Spill Incident: The Latest Scoop

The oil spill response operation in respect of the Queen of the North ferry incident has indeed wound down, as reported in the previous posting on this blog. Provincial officials are now instituting a long-term monitoring program, so that they will know in future, for instance, if any oil reaches the shoreline.

Nevertheless, oil is said to continue to leak from the sunken vessel in very small amounts. The mini-sub that went down and examined the wreck eight days ago found leaks in three places, releasing marble-sized drops. Some oil is therefore still reaching the surface, taking the form of a rainbow-coloured sheen which is only visible from the air. This oil which is being released is not thought to be causing environmental problems at the present time, and the options for cleanup are few and far between.

Provincial officials have no idea how much oil has escaped, but suspect that a lot of the diesel fuel involved in the initial spill was released when the vessel impacted the seabed with what was undoubtedly a great big thump. Not only is the bottom of the vessel not visible; in fact, the sunken hulk is said to be buried in silt up to its scrape boards.

It now appears that the Queen of the North had a total of ten tanks on board. How many of these might have been ruptured or damaged is also anyone's guess.

So, all in all, from a provincial perspective at least, the response operation is thought to have gone relatively smoothly, serving as a dress rehearsal for larger spills, and providing authorities with an idea as to what the logistical and resource requirements might be in the event of, say, a supertanker catastrophe involving crude oil.

It will be recalled that Enbridge has plans to bring tar sands crude oil right by Gil Island, where the QOTN spill occurred, within the next four years or so.