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REPORTING · 12th March 2013
Walter McFarlane
There was a presentation at Riverlodge by Graham Knox, the Manager of Environmental Emergency Program on February 23rd. The topic was Oil Spill Response and Marine Debris, a kayak assessment of the Douglas Channel and Approaches.

“The purpose of our expedition was a want to look at marine surveys,” said Knox. “The Provincial Government the Federal Government, Local Governments and Volunteer Groups have been putting together a [Japanese] Tsunami Debris plan and one of the aspects of that was looking at the different beaches around the province and determining what was the status of those beaches? One of our jobs was to go out and do some marine debris on this section of the coast where we traveled. […] The other thing we wanted to do was look at Oil Spill Planning / Response Consideration.”

They were also able to verify the existence of islands which have been airbrushed out of several Advertisements for the pipeline.

They set off from Kitkatla by Kayak. They chose Kayaks for several reasons. One was to reduce their impact on the environment, another was immersing them in the environment, and the final was because larger boats cannot navigate into some of the tighter areas. He added that the conditions where novice Kayakers could paddle in approximate where spill response starts to fail.

“If it’s too rough out there to paddle, it’s probably too rough out there to do any types of spill response,” said Knox.

He expressed marine debris has several impacts from environmental concerns to economic impacts. He stated they are an eyesore, can impact wildlife and can damage people and vessels. There is also a concern for invasion from alien species.

They found ropes, plastics, containers and rubber hose. Most of the debris came from the local fishing industry. There were three buoys with Asian writing on it. The writing however was Chinese so they concluded it was not from the tsunami.

“What we found was the debris was heaviest [in] Otter Passage, the southern portion of our route and we kind of speculated that might be: One: the traffic that comes in and out of Kitimat and also the currents that are going through there, pulling it through and bringing stuff in. The majority of the debris was of North American Origin, other than those three pieces which I mentioned. That shows me, yes, we are concerned what’s happening with Tsunami Debris from Japan but we also have to pay attention to the debris we are delivering into the ocean right now,” said Knox.

Moving on to spills, he told those who were assembled that when a spill occurs; they want to do areal observation so they know where it is and where it is going. They also need to track the oil because the winds and tides will move it around. They will be directing boats and need to know where to send them so they can do recovery.

Another thing which needs to be done is to create a geographic response plan, identifying resources at risk and environmentally sensitive areas of particular significance. This would allow the responders to hit the ground running and work to keep the oil from getting onto the sensitive areas.

They want to boom and recover oil as quickly as they can before it spreads out so thin which the skimmers cannot recover it. He talked about chemical dispersants and they are not preapproved at the moment. The dispersants break the oil into smaller particles and allow bacteria to degrade it. This decreases the risk for birds but increases the risk to fish. He promised they will not do it unless the benefit is better than leaving the problem alone.

He looked at burning off the oil as well, the drawback is the creation of smoke so they do not want to do that near human populations or environmental risk areas. It has to be done 5 nautical miles away from population centres. He added there is a residue which drops to the bottom of the ocean. The black smoke could also be deposited up to 80 Kilometres away.

“You’re never going to get all the oil on the water,” said Knox. “In a really good response, you may get up to 15% of the oil on the water but in many cases, you’re only going to get 4%-5% of that. That means much of the oil might end up on shorelines.”

He talked about the techniques for cleaning up beaches, notably big machinery and running water down the beach. He added a lot of waste is generated and it all needs a place to go. They have to judge what could happen and use it to make their assessments.

Another aspect is transportation and the further away the spill is from a population centre, the longer it will take to transport the workers out there. They need trained responders who know the harmful effects of oil on themselves.

Knox went over the ways nature could work against responders. They need to have the response equipment nearby and operate under safe conditions. High winds and waves can make it hazardous for the responders, while making booms and skimmers inoperable. Large currents also make the booms inoperable. Dispersants do not work on calm flat days. Oil needs to have a certain thickness to burn, but it cannot be burned after 24 hours. If the weather is cold or windy, it might not burn, the fire could get blown out and the waves could put the fire out.

He wants a response, where all the different groups are pulled together. They do not want everyone going out and doing different things which would waste resources. They need to know how to feed, house people, get them out there and take care of them if they get hurt.

Knox explained they also need to know where the wildlife are and what to protect.

He used all of these concepts going back to the slides and how equipment and responders would have to work around the challenges, and in some cases, benefits to spill responses, in these areas. Overall, he listed more hazards than benefits.

One of the challenges to the study however, was in the cost. In some cases, they were using their own equipment. Knox talked about how two of the Kayaks were his, how the boat rack on his truck was handmade. However, after the study was done, when he was asked why they did not have any pictures of the big waves, he expressed it was because he was using his wife’s $400 camera 1 week after she bought it and he did not want to ruin it in rough weather. The equipment stayed put away during rough weather.

He expressed oil has different effects on different types of beaches depending on the coarseness of the sand, the wildlife that tunnels in the sand and the plants on the beaches. Knox talked about training local people to be the first responders and having them train others to respond to spills.

Knox went into where they could house 500 spill responders, suggesting Kitimat with its camps or Prince Rupert as potential locations, however, pointing out these locations would cost them around 3 hours of spill response a day traveling to the sites.

He stated the lack of flat land on our coast was a risk because it would leave little room to store stuff. In addition, there are other concerns about all marine vessels on the coast. As more facilities are built, there are more opportunities for collisions and groundings.

“Western Canada Marine Response Corporation is the only federally approved spill response organization for the BC Coast. They have about 25 full time employees; the majority of them are in Vancouver. They are heavily reliant on what they call their ‘Fisherman’s Oil Spill Emergency Team’ where they sign up fishing vessels and train them to do spill response,” said Knox.

He questioned if fishermen out fishing would be willing to pack up their nets and go in to port to get there fishing gear off, get refueled and get booms, skimmers and get out to a spill scene. He questioned whether they will be available. He pointed out some fishermen travel around the coast during the seasons while others shut their boats down for the winter.

Knox went through the amount of wildlife in the area and how oil could move up the food chain as animal can scavenge those which have been affected by oil. He shared a story about an encounter he and his group had with a group of coastal wolves.

He explained that the legislation allows them to collect the money back to cover the cost of the clean-up. However, they are not forcing them to restore what is damaged.

“What we want to do is create rules so the people responsible for that are responsible for cleaning up and fixing the damage that has occurred, directly or through some sort of offset,” said Knox.

They also want the industries coming here to fund a geographic response plan so they know what they are doing.

The presentation was long and effectively described the task of oil spill cleanup on the northern coast as being made challenging, if not impossible by both the isolation and the coastal features. However, the presentation was not complete yet.

When they were done, Knox showed an 18 minute video which was shot along the trip. It was narrated by one of their colleagues. The video was prefaced with a disclaimer saying it was not the opinions of the Ministry of the Environment.

During the video, the narrator expresses how clean up in some of the areas would be chaos during November storms while other areas appear impossible for spill response. The narrator comes to the conclusion that it would be impossible to remove oil without damaging the marine life and it was madness to even attempt it.