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Oil spill response gap no surprise to Polak
Environment Minister Mary Polak says advice she got from staff in June on the inadequacy of B.C.'s oil spill response capability largely underscored what the government had already disclosed a year ago.
She was responding to the Freedom of Information release of her ministerial briefing book, which warned the environment ministry isn't adequately staffed to meet existing oil spill risks, let alone those from proposed new export pipelines.
"Even a moderate-sized spill would overwhelm the province's ability to respond and could result in a significant liability for government," the document said.
On land, it noted, an hour-long spill from Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway project could spill 21,000 barrels of diluted bitumen into the B.C. wilderness.
Polak said in an interview little of the information came as a surprise.
The province last summer released a report that bluntly spelled out B.C.'s deficiencies to backstop its demand – issued at the same time – that any new heavy oil pipeline meet five key conditions, including world-leading marine and land spill protections.
Although her briefing book said spill safeguard requirements imposed on industry in both Washington State and Alaska are "far in excess of what is required in B.C." the 2012 documents went into considerably more detail.
"That's the entire basis for the work we have undertaken," Polak said. "What I saw in the briefing notes just added to the urgency of conducting that work. It reminds you that while industry continues to develop and our economy grows, we have not over time kept pace with the changes."
Proposals to improve both marine and land spill responses are in the works for release later this year or early 2014.
The land response initiative aims to improve prevention and cleanup measures not just for pipelines, but also for hauling petroleum by train or tanker truck.
Marine rules also must improve safety not just for oil tankers but less obvious sources of potential spills, Polak said, such as large cargo ships that carry as much bunker fuel oil as a small tanker.
NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbert accused the province of stacking its oil spill advisory committee with industry representatives and said that's unlikely to lead to world-leading spill prevention policies.
"The government is allowing the oil industry to dominate the discussion, when a major spill would devastate not only our environment but other key industries like fishing and tourism, whose interests should be represented at the table," he said.
Polak said more sectors will be consulted, but added it's reasonable to work closely with the industry at the outset to evaluate its operations and capabilities.
A land spill response corporation or cooperative funded by industry, similar to the one charged with cleanup of marine spills, is one potential option.
Petroleum movers want to be involved, she added.
"They recognize it's part of the social licence they need to have in place to operate in this province," Polak said.
Asked about the federal government's decision to relocate its Vancouver oil spill response office to Quebec, Polak said it's too soon to say what the impact may be.
"It's a concern whenever you have change," she said, but added B.C. may seek a different spill response coordination system.
"We believe we've seen progress," Polak said of shifts in Ottawa's approach to oil spill risks.
"We've moved from a place where there wasn't a fullsome recognition on the part of the feds of our needs here on the west coast to the point where they appear to be interested in collaborating with us on this."
Photo above: Environment Minister Mary Polak