Review flags denial, confusion in slow response to Marathassa oil spill

Nearly two-hour delay in deploying cleanup crews to Vancouver's English Bay caused by series of agency failures

It was several hours before containment booms were eventually put in place around the MV Marathassa after a fuel oil spill April 8.

An independent review of the spill of bunker fuel oil into Vancouver’s English Bay has blamed cleanup delays on the MV Marathassa’s initial denial it was the source, as well as miscommunication between responding agencies.

Report author John Butler found confusion about roles and responsibilities, shifting assessments of the severity, and technical difficulties resulted in a one hour and 49 minute delay in the response to the 2,700-litre spill from the grain freighter on April 8.

The spill soiled beaches in Vancouver and West Vancouver and drew intense criticism from the City of Vancouver, which was not notified until the next morning, 13 hours later.

The incident was treated as a failed test of the capability of federal agencies to respond to a much bigger oil spill from an actual oil tanker.

It increased calls for the province to reject any new oil pipeline to the coast and sparked renewed criticism of the federal decision to close the Kitsilano Coast Guard base.

Calls about a slick on the water began coming in from the public to the Canadian Coast Guard and Port Metro Vancouver just before 5 p.m., according to the Coast Guard-commisioned review.

Port officials had a boat on the water investigating by 5:12 and by 5:18 the port had contacted the Marathassa, whose captain soon denied being the source of the pollutant.

By 5:50, the port determined the spill was recoverable and unlikely to break up before it hit the beach, and at 6:00 it told the cleanup agency – the Western Canada Marine Response Corp. – that the Coast Guard would likely order them into action.

But neither the Coast Guard nor the port immediately activated WCMRC, which decided on its own to mobilize its crews as an exercise at 6:35.

And WCMRC’s deployment proved to be short-lived.

Its crews demobilized after hearing from Port Metro Vancouver that its vessel was standing down, on the basis there was no recoverable oil.

“This was in error,” the report found, noting the port vessel wasn’t standing down but returning to dock to get sampling kits and expressing concern about fading daylight.

WCMRC was then ordered back into action around 8 p.m. as the size of the spill became clearer.

The first WCMRC vessel arrived at 9:25 p.m. and began recovering oil. Cleanup crews began booming around the Marathassa at 4:36 a.m. and completed it within an hour.

The report found the Coast Guard wrongly believed Port Metro Vancouver was the lead agency responsible for the spill because it happened in the harbour.

That mistaken Coast Guard decision was in part because its duty officer was physically in Prince Rupert and not aware of appropriate protocols for a mystery spill in Vancouver harbour.

The report said there was “minimal impact” on the public from a health and safety perspective, but about 20 birds were oiled and ongoing effects are being monitored.

Recommendations include ensuring the Coast Guard has adequate staff to respond to a major pollution incident anywhere in its region at any time, and ensuring accurate information is released as soon as possible on the size and type of spill, along with public health implications.

B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak called the review and its findings a good first step toward ensuring better marine spill protection.

“We are on the right path,” Polak said. “But we also recognize there is still much more work to do towards achieving the sort of marine spill response capabilities we can be truly proud of.”

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