By Vivian Moreau
Squamish estuary may never fully recover from the effects of last summer’s 30,000-litre oil spill, according to the provincial official who oversaw clean-up efforts.
Ministry of Environment’s Brian Clarke said the estuary is in wait and see mode right now as consultants monitor residual oil and toxicity levels still remaining in the estuary.
“It will be monitored until the province is satisfied that decontamination on our land is remediated to the best (achievable level),” Clarke said at an open house held in Squamish on Tuesday, March 27 to inform locals about clean-up efforts following the Aug. 4, 2006 oil spill from the Norwegian cargo ship Westwood Anette.
Federal and provincial representatives outnumbered members of the audience 21-4 at the poorly-attended forum. Representatives from the provincial Ministry of Environment as well as ship owner officials responded to concerns from Squamish Nation and District of Squamish environmental staff and from two members of the public about lack of communication in the days following the spill and lack of continued clean-up efforts in the months since the accident.
Mario Ramirez-Gaston, fleet manager for Gearbulk Canada, spoke at the meeting for the owners of the Westwood Anette, the ship that split an oil tank after high winds bumped it against dolphin pilings as it tried to leave port last summer. Transport Canada did not lay charges against the ship owners. Ramirez-Gaston was surprised when Squamish resident John Buchannan said garbage left from clean-up efforts conducted by Vancouver-based Burrard Clean is still present at the site. Ramirez-Gaston promised to have the garbage removed and also said he would follow up on a suggestion from District of Squamish’s environmental coordinator that passive clean-up efforts be maintained. Chessy Knight recommended that sponge-like pom poms be left in place to catch residual oil.
Ministry of Environment’s Clarke admitted procedural mistakes had been made in the weeks he was leading spill response efforts.
“As a provincial response we shouldn’t have left town so early,” Clarke said. “The local population thought we said ‘the event is over and we don’t care anymore’ and left town.” Clarke said. He said staff should have been left in place to deal with residents’ concerns.
Preliminary environmental assessments have been drafted and distributed for comment to federal and provincial agencies involved, as well as the district of Squamish, Clarke said. Further sediment sampling, as well as sampling of fish tissue and some water column sampling will take place in April and again in the fall. If the estuary continues to show high levels of toxicity further clean-up efforts will be recommended, he said.
A consultant hired by the ship owners says dredging, although not a first choice, is an option for dealing with the toxic levels of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, or PAH levels, in the estuary’s channels. Tests last fall showed PAH levels 917 times above the province’s minimum criteria for determining contaminated sites.
“That’s a really drastic measure,” said Greg Challenger of Kirkland, Washington-based Polaris Applied Sciences. Challenger, who has worked on clean-up efforts following the March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, said dredging the estuary would be considered a “kill it to save it” approach. Challenger said he prefers a more measured approach, allowing the estuary to recover as best it can on its own, noting that the estuary may never be the same as it was prior to the spill.
“There are certain things that are gravity issues,” he said. “Just as we can’t change gravity, when oil hits water certain things happen and we can’t take them back.”