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Spill response, clean-up, too slow

Officials maintain correct procedures were followed; six birds now cleaned and released

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Although Coast Guard officials say response time was adequate, concerns are being raised by locals and a scientist about the time taken to respond and clean up after the 30,000-litre bunker fuel spill Aug. 4 in Squamish.

Howard Bailey, an American biologist who helped write the Cheakamus River ecosystem recovery plan this year, said although the area’s high winds and high tides on Aug. 4 contributed to a worst case scenario for spill containment efforts, he is still surprised at the lack of rescue equipment available on site at Squamish Terminal.

"There should have been a warehouse with gear and a trained team in place," Bailey said. Too much time was spent between federal and provincial agencies in discussing plans of action, he added.

"Any time you spend around thinking who is culpable or whatever is a waste of time while the fuel gets into vegetation, which is exactly what it did," he said.

Squamish Terminal’s president Ron Anderson refused to comment about the lack of on site equipment.

The 200-metre Westwood Anette, a Norwegian cargo ship guided by a B.C. coast pilot, was reversing away from Squamish port in a restrictive narrow area between docks and dikes at about 2:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4, when strong southerly winds pushed it back. Although dock fenders were in place, dolphin pilings punched two 15-centimetre diameter holes through the steel-plated hull, puncturing one fuel tank in the process. Ship crews immediately began transferring oil from the damaged fuel tank to adjacent tanks but about 29,500 litres escaped in the port area. High winds then pushed fuel into Squamish estuary side channels, fouling vegetation and birds.

Safety investigators say the accident was not unusual.

"As far as we are concerned if it wasn’t for the pollution, it was just a minor striking," said Raymond Matthew, Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s chief investigator into the incident.

"These things happen all the time: ships leave docks and the wind catches them."

Coast Guard officials maintain correct procedures were followed in a timely manner. All ships entering Canada are required to have a response plan in place and the Westwood Anette followed that plan, placing phone calls to which Vancouver-based Burrard Clean Operations responded.

Transport Canada standards require responses to spills under 150 tonnes to be within six hours and according to Coast Guard records, Burrard Clean’s ship and the Coast Guard’s cutter, Mallard, were on the scene within three hours.

But an eyewitness’s account disputes that timing. Gary Smith was at the scene watching his son, kiteboarding instructor Alex Noke-Smith, at the time of the accident. Noke-Smith and two other kiteboarders were coated by the spill and had to be treated at Squamish General Hospital. Gary Smith said response time was slow and inadequate. He noted that the first boom used to contain the spill was much too small. Although he observed two boats trying to assist shortly after the spill, neither belonged to the Coast Guard or Burrard Clean Operations.

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