News / Canada

‘Hundreds of spills’ show huge gaps in oil spill response: Internal B.C. government email

An alarming email from high-ranking Ministry of Environment staff proves the province is unprepared to deal with a major environmental disaster, says the NDP’s environment critic.

Email correspondence (see full email below) between Graham Knox, the director of B.C.’s Environmental Emergency Program, and Jim Hofweber, executive director of the Environmental Emergencies and Land Remediation Branch, on March 31, 2014 expose gaping holes in the province’s ability to monitor and respond to events such as oil spills and mine tailings breaches, and in its power to hold polluters responsible.

“We could point to hundreds of spills on annual basis where gaps occurred or improvements are needed [sic],” writes Knox, in response to Hofweber’s request for additional information on spill response. “Compiling such a report however would involve significant staff resources, that we currently do not have.”

Knox goes on to outline “a very small sampling of examples of existing gaps or deficiencies.”

Under a section on spill reporting, he lists an incident where CN Rail advised the ministry of a “small spill at rail yard in lower mainland” which “Ministry staff subsequently discover their [sic] was actually a collision between locomotives and substantially more fuel released then reported and that the spilled materials were moving offsite.”

When tailings from the Tulameen coalmine were released into the Tulameen River, Knox says the polluter contracted a clean-up company that “did not have sufficient training to complete the work appropriately.”

When Kinder Morgan reported a spill at their Sumas tank farm, Knox writes “no air monitoring or sampling was done to determine what the concentrations of chemicals in the air were to assure the public and provide scientific basis for the company’s claims that there were no health impacts […].”

Some of the most troubling examples highlight the government’s apparent lack of enforcement power for its polluter pay model.

Knox cites the April 2011 Goldstream River disaster – where a Columbia Fuels tanker truck crashed off the Malahat Highway on Vancouver Island, spilling its contents into the river – as one that “exemplified the current lack of process or requirements of restoration of the environmental after a spill.”

“The ministry continues to work with Columbia Fuels and numerous stakeholders on a restoration plan but without clear rules and guidelines the process has continued on and the responsible party could ultimately walk away if it so chose [...]”

Knox also pointed to a lack of legislation that forces polluters to compensate for the loss of use of public parks and beaches after a disaster.

“If a spill were to occur that effected [sic] both Washington state and BC […] the public on the U.S. would be entitled to compensation for the loss of public use for its lands / resources while British Columbians would be entitled to no compensation (even though the spill occurred here and involved a BC based company).”

The content of the email was alarming to read, said NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert.

“It lays it out incident after incident. It speaks for itself, there are so many gaps,” he told Metro. “It shows our capacity or ability to respond to oil spills and mine disasters is incredibly weak.”

Chandra Herbert said the email shows a history of non-compliance and, coupled with poor response to recent disasters like the Mount Polley tailings pond breach, “does not give any confidence the government is taking (environmental protection) seriously”.

He fears a large-scale disaster, like an oil spill near Stanley Park, would leave taxpayers on the hook and do irreparable damage to the environment.

The email was found by Chandra Herbert’s research team while sifting through Freedom of Information releases on the province’s Open Information portal.

Several portions of the email have been redacted.