WWF-Canada Blog:

Just a matter of time

Last Tuesday evening, May 1, a pilot reported an oil spill in the Great Bear Sea.  The pilot immediately contacted the community of Hartley Bay, and the Coast Guard was called in.

This takes me back to an event a few years ago …   I’m conferring with a handful of stakeholders in a room buzzing with activity.  We’re responding to updates from Incident Command headquarters for oil spills, communications personnel deal with logistics, and scientific experts pour over data.  We’re working together for the common good.

Well, we’re pretending to, anyway.  It was all part of a mock exercise to prepare for an oil spill, put on by the Canadian and US counterparts agencies charged with this responsibility.  These scenario activities are held periodically to test and refine response capacity.

The scenario we were given concerned a sunken ship – the M.G. Zalinsky (the very source of the oil slick found this week!).It was a US military vessel that went down in bad weather in 1946 after running into an island about half the size of Ottawa.  It wasn’t until Fifty-seven years later, that a series of marine and aerial sightings reported small oil slicks in the area.  The source was determined to be the Zalinsky, and it was decided something needed to be done.

When she sank, she was carrying some 700 tonnes of bunker oil (a heavy hydrocarbon similar to crude), various military parts, and, oh yes… twelve 500-lb aerial bombs.   A tricky situation, it was felt.  So divers were sent down to patch the leaking hull.  Nobody quite knows how much oil was lost, how much remains, or the current state of the Zalinsky’s other cargo.  Perhaps that would be the end of it.

A temporary solution at best, thought by many, and notably the Gitga’at First Nation of nearby Hartley Bay, who continued to harvest seaweeds and shellfish throughout the area, where they  occasionally observed small slicks in the following years.   So four years later, the Coast Guard made a commitment to “develop a risk-based action plan to deal with the matter”(1).  A mere two years after that, they were all set to… launch a funding proposal, with an action plan to be carried out in following years (subject to funding availability, of course).

This was about the time the Northern Gateway Project was gearing up to spend the $100 million acquired from international oil industry backers toconvince the region that moving oil tankers through the Great Bear was in their interest.  At that time, concerns were already being raised about Canada’s oil spill response preparedness, both in Canada, and south of the border.   As of 2011, the Zalinsky salvage project was still on the back burner, while the Northern Gateway proposed oil pipeline has moved to the front burner.

This patchwork response (literally and figuratively) to the reality of marine oil spills should be a wake up call for all of us.

Back in the scenario activity in 2009, somebody commented:We know the Zalinsky’s down there, corroding away.  It’s just a matter of time. This was the reason, after all, that it was used as a test case.  When it comes to marine oil spills, one hears that phrase a lot– it’s just a matter of time.

Speaking of time, the latest word in Grenville Channel is that the Coast Guard considers the oil slick too small and widely dispersed to deploy clean-up resources.  They’ve recommended another patch job.  They’ll contract this out to specialist divers, if their budget allows it.

For the Zalinsky, the right solution isn’t simple. Underwater salvage operations are complicated.But in the case of future choices for Canada and the Great Bear, the right answer is clear:safeguarding our coastal environment is paramount. Forcing an oil tanker route through the Great Bear goes against common sense, and against the overwhelming (and growing) opposition.

You might say it all feels a bit like sitting on a bomb.