Speech: English Bay Oil Spill Response

Mr. Speaker, the toxic bunker fuel spill which occurred in the Vancouver Harbour on April 8, 2015 provided a vivid and terrible example of why we need immediate action to restore coast guard services in British Columbia. The federal government must reverse Conservative cuts to marine safety, oil spill response, and environmental clean-up capacity in Vancouver and on the West Coast

That’s why today New Democrats are calling on the government to take three immediate steps to protect the BC coast from future marine emergencies:

1.      Re-open the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station

2.      Re-open the recently-closed Ucluelet Marine Communication and Traffic Service Centre, and

3.      Halt plans to close the Vancouver and Comox MCTS centres.

Mr. Speaker, the federal government is responsible for keeping Canada’s coasts safe, secure, and free of environmental contamination through the implementation of measures to prevent, detect, prepare for, and respond to spills from ships in Canada’s marine environment. In 2010, the Auditor General warned that Canada’s oil spill response capacity was inadequate and that we are not prepared to deal with even a moderately sized spill.

However, over the last four years, rather than increase the resources needed to respond to marine emergencies on the BC Coast, the Conservative government has shut down the Kitsilano Coast Guard base, closed BC’s oil spill environmental response center, and is in the process of shutting three of the five Marine Communication and Traffic Centers, all while marine traffic is increasing.

Experts warned of the negative impact cutting resources to the organizations tasked with responding to environmental incidents on the BC coast would have. Now these warnings have become reality. The closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station had a direct impact on the Coast Guard’s ability to stage a quick response to last week’s spill.

Prior to its closure, the Kitsilano Coast Guard station was one of the most active in the country, servicing Canada’s largest and busiest port.  The reckless decision to close down the Kitsilano Coast Guard station was an abdication of the federal government’s responsibility to protect Canada’s coastal waters and is already undermining the Coast Guard’s ability to respond to spills and maritime emergencies on the British Columbia coast.

According to former Kitsilano Coast Guard base commander Fred Moxey, a single rubber boat was initially deployed on Wednesday night as the Richmond Coast Guard Station’s hovercraft is not able to travel on an oil slick. But the Kitsilano base, if it were still operational, would have been able to respond to the incident in six minutes and with the proper equipment to contain a spill from spreading across the water and onto the shoreline. Instead, there was a six-hour delay in placing booms around the leaking tanker to mitigate further disbursement and contamination.

The delayed was unacceptable and unnecessarily risky for the environmental protection of our coastal waters. And it comes on the heels of the Conservative’s refusal to engage with the many stakeholders that warned the government about the strategic importance of the Kitsilano base prior to its closure on February 19th, 2013.

At the time, Vancouver’s Fire Chief John McKearney stated, “This closure has put the safety of our harbour and waterways at risk.”

Shockingly, the government failed to consult with the provincial government, the city of Vancouver, Coastal Healh or marine emergency response partners like the Vancouver police and fire departments, or the Jericho Sailing Centre.

Since its closure, Canada’s New Democrats have raised concerns about the impact the closure of the Kitsilano station would have on marine emergency response repeatedly in Parliament. Until now, the government has stubbornly refused to reverse the closure despite calls from the Opposition, environmentalists, and first responders who warned the closure would increase response times, leading to increased risk on BC’s coast.

It’s also important to highlight that while the closure of the Kitsilano station saves just $700,000 per year, the Conservatives are in the midst of spending $7.5 million advertising tomorrow’s budget before it has even been approved by Parliament.

The spill also underscores a major gap in research and preparedness due to federal cuts to science programs, says an expert with the Vancouver aquarium. According to Peter Ross, director of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Pollution Research Program, because of Conservative cuts there is no cohesive long-term monitoring of British Columbia’s coastal ecosystems, with the lack of baseline data now making it difficult for scientists to assess the spill’s impact.

New Democrats are also deeply concerned that the closure of Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centres put Vancouver and other areas of the BC Coast further at risk. The scheduled closure of the Vancouver MCTS station threatens the ability to prevent shipping accidents and weakens capacity to provide a rapid response.  Currently, the Regional Marine Information Centre in Vancouver, part of the MCTS program which is scheduled for closure, maintains responsibility for alerting responders and government agencies so an immediate response can be mobilized.

Yet, because of Conservative cuts this vital service is also being closed and no replacement system or training has yet been put in place. This means that if the spill had happened in May, there would have been no system in place to alert authorities.

The cuts that will shutter this important notification centre are part of broader budget cuts to the West Coast marine safety network by this Conservative government. When the MCTS Centres close next month, the coast guard will no longer provide anchorage assistance to ships—including oil tankers. BC Coast Pilots and Port Metro Vancouver have opposed the elimination of anchorage assistance by the coast guard.

The serious nature of these cuts was explained by Allan Hughes, Western Director of Unifor Local 2182 who has stated that "When a serious pollution incident happens, quick notification and response is key to limiting the spread of pollutants. [Yet] the Harper government is dismantling the west coast's prevention and emergency response system that has been in place for decades."

Mr. Speaker, imagine if spill had been much worse. Imagine if it had been an oil tanker, or an issue at the refinery in the Burrard Inlet; the situation would be devastating.  A crude oil spill in the Lower Mainland would be catastrophic. It would not only affect the coast, but the communities and economies that depend on these environments.

BC’s coastal regions are a vital part of the economy, providing employment and a way of life for millions of people. Our coastal waters support a vibrant fishety, tourism and recreation. They also provide habitat for a variety of wildlife, including numerous species of fish, shellfish, seabirds, and mammals, all of which contribute to the economic, social, and environmental well-being of Canadians. Ship-source spills of pollutants such as oil and other hazardous substances are one of several sources of marine pollution with the potential to negatively impact commercial and recreational use of our coast. That’s why it’s so important to take a proactive approach to the management of our coastal waters.  

British Columbians deserve to be represented by Members of Parliament who aren’t afraid to stand up for what’s right. Conservative MPs across British Columbia have quietly let these disgraceful closures happen but they now have an opportunity to do the right thing by voting in favour of this motion. The choice is clear, they can either stand ‎up for West Coast marine safety or they can turn their backs and vote against this important motion.

In conclusion, before British Columbians are forced to respond to another spill on our coast, the government must immediately re-open the Kitsilano Coast Guard station, restore operations at BC’s Marine Communication and Traffic Service centers, and work with the Province, municipalities, health authorities, and the network of marine safety responders to quickly put in place a modernized spill response plan for British Columbia.

 Anything less jeopardizes the long-term prosperity of our West Coast.