By Alison Bate

What would happen if a tanker on its way to Kitimat collided with a tug in the scenic Inside Passage?

According to the author of a new report, major flaws would be exposed in the way marine accidents are handled here in British Columbia.

“Nobody is essentially watching the store – at least not the whole building,” says EnviroEmerg consultant Stafford Reid, near the end of a mammoth 144-page report quietly released in mid-September.

His report, commissioned by the environmental group Living Oceans Society, has the unwieldy title “Major Marine Casualty Risk and Response Preparedness in British Columbia”. But it is a mine of information about all that is wrong – and right – with B.C.’s ability to cope with oil spills from tankers, ships of all kinds, and the numerous tugs and barges.

Reid is a former environmental emergency planner with the B.C. Ministry of Environment, so has an insider’s knowledge of the muddled mess of agencies and turf wars involved in handling any oil spill or marine accident of any kind in B.C. waters.

His report says that the shipping industry in B.C. is generally well-managed, but marine risk is increasing as vessel traffic volumes and ship sizes increase.

“A major vessel accident can happen anytime, any place and for any reason,” he warns.

In one of six accident scenarios, Reid explores what would happen if a 35,000-deadweight “Handysize” tanker carrying condensate collided with a northbound tug in Wright Sound, while on its way to Kitimat.

As tankers go, this is a small one, the same size as those now bringing condensate to the Methanex’s terminal in Kitimat under an agreement with EnCana Midstream & Marketing – a major oilsands producer in Alberta.

Tankers are a hot topic at the moment, as not only is tanker activity increasing in B.C.’s waters, but supertankers could be heading for Kitimat if Enbridge’s major pipeline plans go ahead.

In his scenario, Reid notes that higher vessel traffic means a tanker crossing Wright Sound is more likely to run into problems here than while transiting the long narrow Douglas Channel leading to Kitimat.

Wright Sound is also where the B.C. ferry Queen of the North infamously sank after hitting a rock in March 2006. Two passengers died, and oil spread throughout the Sound. The ferry is still in its watery grave, 400 metres below the surface, making it too deep to send in divers and technically difficult to raise. It’s not clear whether any fuel is still on board.

So what would happen? In his spill scenario, Reid says a collision between a tanker carrying 36,500 metric tons (280,000 barrels) of condensate and a tug might damage two of the bigger vessel’s five starboard tanks, leading to a spill of up to 3,000 metric tons (23,000 barrels) in the water,. The tug and its crew would not be injured, he assumes.

Condensates are liquid hydrocarbon mixtures used to dilute the thick tar in the oilsands so it can flow more easily through pipelines. And because B.C.’s response regime is geared only to oilspills, other problems could arise. For example:

* In Canada, owners of ships and coastal oil handling facilities are required to make an arrangement with a response organization to handle an oilspill. In B.C., companies pay an annual fee to Burrard Clean Operation to handle any such spills.

However, Reid notes that response organizations are not required to plan, prepare and respond to condensates or biofuels. They are neither equipped nor required to respond, he says.

* Condensates are volatile and potentially explosive, posing safety and health hazards to spill cleanup crews. “Condensates fall very closely into the hazardous materials category,” he says. “B.C. has essentially no hazardous material response capability for a vessel-based incident.”

* The response strategy is to simply let it evaporate, as condensate is non-recoverable. However, the impact on the marine environment would be short but harsh. Whales, seals, otters, and birds would all suffer.

* Unlike the U.S., though, Canada and British Columbia do not have a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process i.e. a way to recoup costs for damages to the environment after the cleanup is completed.

* Although the condensate is being shipped for EnCana, the company is not responsible for any clean-up or lasting damage to the environment.

Rhona DelFrari, EnCana’s media relations advisor, says in an interview: “We only purchase the condensate when it reaches the terminal. We’re not in the shipping business.”

She says the company buys condensate from different suppliers, and its role is limited to having the right to approve a shipping company. “We want to make sure it’s a reputable company.”

Canada works on the “polluter-pay principle”, meaning the ship owner (and its insurers) are responsible for clean-up. However, the amount of funding available and how it can be used depends on the type and size of vessel, and the kind of cargo it is carrying. There are also legally defined limits to the amount of money a ship owner has to pay, called the “limit of financial liability”. After that, government foots the bill.

Reid says that because condensate is not classified as a persistent oil, funds for response, compensation and any penalties would come only from the ship owner’s Protection and Indemnity Insurance (P &I Club). Esssentially, there’s less money in the kitty if a major environmental disaster occurs.

A tanker the same size, but carrying crude oil, would also be eligible for approximately $200 million for clean-up from the International Oil Pollution Funds (CLC/IOPC) or Canada’s domestic Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund (SOPF), but in this case, only the ship’s insurers would pay.

“The financial risk is not very well understood. When would the money run out and it be handed over to the government to pay?” says Reid in an interview Friday (Nov.22).

Related posts:
Tug escort rules vary in B.C.
What if a containership ran aground on Nootka Island?

Download the report:
Major Marine Casualty Risk and Response Preparedness in British Columbia (large PDF file)