Oil spill inevitable, islanders hear

  • Oct. 24, 2007 8:00 a.m.

By Charlotte Tarver–The message from a community meeting on oil spills held Monday in Queen Charlotte was simple. If there are oil tankers or oil wells in Hecate Strait, the question is not if there will be a spill, it’s when and how large. And the second message is that coastal communities have little capability to clean-up inevitable spills. Speaking at the meeting organized by the Living Oceans Society, Dr. Rick Steiner of the University of Alaska described the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, and the economic, environmental and social consequences still affecting coastal Alaska 19-years later. “The same thing could happen here, I’m afraid on the convoluted coast of British Columbia,” said Dr. Steiner. The Exxon Valdez hit a reef, causing it to spill more than 250,000 barrels of crude that spread to cover 1,900 km of coastline. Hundreds of thousands of marine birds, hundreds of sea otters, seals and sea lions, countless herring and salmon and 23-25 killer whales died. “It cost $2-billion in clean-up and maybe 7-percent of what spilled was recovered.” Many islanders believe there’s a 35-year old federal moratorium keeping oil tankers out of Hecate Strait, but says Oonagh O’Connor of the Living Oceans Society, 10 oil tankers carrying condensate (a light oil that is highly flammable) have already passed through the Hecate and gone to Kitimat since 2006. “The last eight Prime Ministers have supported the oil moratorium but Prime Minister Harper says condensate is not an oil and allows the tankers to come through,” said Ms O’Connor. The material is transferred onto rail cars in Kitimat and taken to Alberta. Ms O’Connor brought a computer model to demonstrate what would happen if there was an oil spill in the Hecate. The model uses data from Ottawa’s Institute of Ocean Sciences on currents, winds, tidal and solar influences to illustrate where oil would move from four accident sites. In the animation, it spreads like a black cloud across the Hecate, along Haida Gwaii shorelines, covering valuable fish, marine bird and mammal habitats. In one of the scenarios, a spill occurs on Grenville Rock at the north-end of the Hecate and within 12 days, oil covers the Rose Spit shoreline and spreads north and south. (See the model at www.livingoceans.org). Ms O’Connor encouraged islanders to develop a dialogue with government. “The Prime Minister says there’s no moratorium only a voluntary exclusion zone. Nobody in the communities knew of this change…it is necessary to have consultations,” she said. Both speakers said once a spill happens, it could take several days before response teams reach it. “There are only two tugs.to rescue a disabled tanker, and they are both based in the Seattle area,” said Ms O’Connor. At Coast Guard stations along the coast, there are booms, skimmers and clean-up equipment ready to respond. “But it needs ideal weather to clean-up the oil…a one knot wind would cause the boom to fail,” Ms O’Connor said. Despite poor recovery rates, Dr Steiner and Ms O’Connor say governments and communities need to put in spill response systems. People at the meetings asked what could be done to prevent spills. Dr Steiner said a coastal Vessel Traffic System, better radar, keeping pilots onboard until well out in the ocean, better built vessels, weather restrictions on vessels moving into sensitive waters, alcohol and drug testing on crews would help but the risk of an accident would still be there. “There still will be human error…,” he said. In Alaska, “.decades later, there is still social and cultural disruption to native communities…we are finding oil markers in the blood chemistry of otters and other mammals,” said Dr Steiner. “In beach substrates in Prince William Sound, oil is still there at 2-3m depth.” He said the native communities in Alaska call the Exxon Valdez oil spill “The Day The Water Died.” The group was scheduled to make a presentation in Masset Tuesday evening.