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Squamish fuel spill fouls estuary, Howe Sound

Two-thirds of fuel recovered but estuary hard hit



"It’s like déjà vu all over again," Minister of Environment Barry Penner said in Squamish Saturday afternoon.

Penner had just completed a helicopter tour of Howe Sound and Squamish estuary, hard hit by Friday’s 25,000-litre fuel spill from a Norwegian cargo ship. Penner was referring to the fact that the spill occurred on the one-year anniversary of a CN train derailment and caustic soda spill into the Cheakamus River.

He said the spill was not huge but still significant.

"I was surprised at how far south and how quickly some of the fuel managed to make it in 24 hours. I could see it along the eastern side of Highway 99, on shore in little bays and in bigger blobs out in Howe Sound," Penner said.

The 200-metre long Westwood Anette, guided by a B.C. coast pilot, was reversing away from port in a restrictive narrow area between docks and dikes about 2:30 p.m. Friday when strong south winds pushed her back toward port. Although dock fenders were in place, dolphin pilings punched two, six-inch diameter holes through the steel-plated hull, puncturing one fuel tank in the process.

Kiteboard instructor Alex Noke-Smith, 34, was about 100 metres from Squamish’s port terminal at the time of the spill. He initially thought a wind shadow was approaching.

"Then all of a sudden the waves went from whitecaps to black and I was like, we have to get out of here right away."

Noke-Smith, a student and another kiteboarder were caught in the bunker sea fuel that spilled from the vessel. Coated in oil that seeped under their suits, the kiteboarders made it safely to shore then were taken to hospital, treated for eye irritation and cleaned up.

By Sunday morning, two-thirds of the spill had been recovered from around the Squamish dock area with vacuum pumps and portable and ship-based skimmers.

A portion of the nearby Squamish estuary, home to Canada geese, cormorants, herons and mallards, was hard hit. Bunker sea fuel, which does not evaporate or decompose as rapidly as diesel fuel, could be seen one kilometre from the ship reaching hundreds of metres up estuary side channels. A flock of 80-100 oil-coated Canada Geese gathered in mud flats amidst an overwhelming smell of bunker fuel.

Brian Clark, a Ministry of Environment biologist initially leading the response efforts, said there were no reports of dead birds from the spill and asked the public to report any distressed birds to a designated telephone line put in place Saturday, but asked that oil-soaked birds not be approached or handled.

Initial plans to let waterfowl weaken to a state where they could be more easily captured sparked outrage amongst local environmentalists. By Wednesday, however, many were onside with environmental agencies’ plans.