Opinion » Editorial

Oil spills are everyone's problem

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The first thing most travellers do these days when planning a vacation is to head to the computer and Google their destination.

Up will pop beauty shots of the location, suggestions for accommodations, eateries, activities and more. It's a smorgasbord of information. The next problem is figuring out what is reliable information, and what is not, before the decision is made to book the destination or look elsewhere.

Social media research and word of mouth are powerful influencers in the world of travel booking.

But part of this new reality is that if a traveller sees almost anything negative about the destination, they will just click away and look at another locale.

In part this understanding is an underlying reason why the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), in April of 2013, passed a motion declaring its opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline.

"Be it moved that the RMOW oppose the building of the Enbridge pipeline, oppose the Federal Government relaxing the regulations of rivers and fisheries to allow the building of the pipeline and other industrial projects, and in addition oppose the shipping of oil along the BC Coast that would result from this pipeline construction," states the RMOW motion.

"The RMOW also expresses its solidarity and supports the position of other communities in their position to stand against the building of this project and its impacts."

It passed unanimously.

In the last few days we have had a glimpse into what it would be like to have an oil spill in our waters, with the accidental release of at least 2,700 litres of what is believed to be ship's bunker fuel (Bunker C fuel, a substance so toxic that residents were warned not to help gather the pollution from beaches, as it is harmful to health and requires hazardous waste disposal methods) from the MV Marathassa, a Cyprus-registered bulk grain carrier on its maiden voyage.

The fact of the spill is bad enough, but now the media headlines have expanded from the tragedy of the toxic release and its impacts on marine life, water, shorelines and more, to questions around the inability of B.C. to respond adequately to a spill at all.

The province's Liberal Premier Christy Clark called out the federally-mandated Coast Guard on its response, saying it was too slow. Telling comments as B.C. faces the prospect of 250 tankers (fill load is 80,000 tonnes of oil) in the Douglas Channel if the $7.9-billion Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal goes ahead.

This spill pulls at our memory strings, occurring as it does just weeks out from the anniversary dates of both the Exxon Valdez oil spill (in March of 1989 the tanker spewed 13.2 million litres of crude into Prince William Sound) and the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, which ranked as the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history, spilling 757 million litres of crude oil (that's 4.9 billion barrels).

For its part the Coast Guard said its response to the Vancouver spill was strong with crews at the scene within the six-hour international standard for such events.

Communication glitches meant that the City of Vancouver was kept out of the loop for close to 12 hours, however. That delay getting response teams to the scene along with biologists, and so on. If that's the response time in B.C.'s largest urban area, what will likely be the response along the northern coast?

Authorities tell us that close to 80 per cent of the spill oil has be contained and that clean up continues, but reports are now coming in of oil on the beaches of West Vancouver.

There will be serious reputational impacts — don't doubt that for a minute. We need to remember that many of our summer visitors are travellers to Vancouver as well, and if they decide not to visit Vancouver it's likely there will be no trip up the scenic Sea to Sky Highway.

It is distressing to see the local Conservative MP claim the oil spill response was satisfactory — better that the concerns coming to light be tackled up front with a commitment to improve the systems and procedures in place.

Perhaps it's hardly surprising from a government that cut the federal transport budget for marine safety from $82 million in 2009 to $57.5 million in 2015.

Oil spills and the response to them are important to the Canadian public and to those of us reliant on tourism for our livelihoods and if a Harris-Decima poll (for Natural Resources Canada) from last year is any indication most people do not feel officials have the tools they need to deal with it.

Only 27 per cent of respondents said they were confident in Ottawa's ability to respond to an oil spill at sea, while 46 per cent said they lacked confidence.

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