One year ago, Central Coast resident Ingmar Lee sounded an alarm about the Nathan E Stewart, the tug that crashed into a reef off the coast of the Great Bear Rainforest last week. He warned that the American-owned tug that hauls fossil fuels on barges up and down BC’s coast shouldn’t be traversing the Inside Passage. That is exactly where it crashed into a reef last Thursday and started leaking 200,000 litres of diesel fuel atop the Heiltsuk Nation’s clam and seafood beds. Ingmar Lee and coastal communities were ignored and the tug kept sailing through the Inside Passage under a special waiver so it didn’t have to have a local pilot. This crash and spill were predictable and predicted.
October 18, 2016: Diesel fuel spill containment and mitigation efforts off the coast of the Great Bear Rainforest
Here’s Lee’s video warning last year, accurately predicting last week’s crash:
Lee provided a detailed account of how a pilot with no local knowledge was allowed to traverse the Inside Passage:
“The Nathan E. Stewart/DBL 54 is an articulated tug/barge” (ATB) and is owned by the Texas-based Kirby Corporation, which is one of the largest petroleum product ATB operators in the USA. It travels back and forth up the B.C. Inside Passage by “special waiver” which exempts it from Transport Canada shipping regulations. These guide the movement of all other tankers operating in BC waters. As a result, it operates here with no Canadian pilots on board, it does not require escort tugs while maneuvering in Port Metro Vancouver, and most egregiously, it is allowed to travel north through Seymour Narrows and into the “voluntary tanker exclusion zone” that is the B.C. Inside Passage. As such, this unflagged foreign vessel blatantly flouts the concerns of the people of Canada, and operates here secretively without any social license whatsoever.”
Now that the inevitable spill has happened, how effective is the clean up? The news is not good. Andrew Nikiforuk examined this issue in July’s edition of Hakai Magazine.
“The hard scientific reality is this: a big spill is almost impossible to contain because it is physically impossible to mobilize the labor needed and current cleanup technologies in a timely fashion. When the city of Vancouver released a study in 2015 on the effectiveness of responses to large tanker or pipeline spills along the southern coast of British Columbia, the conclusion was blunt: “collecting and removing oil from the sea surface is a challenging, time-sensitive, and often ineffective process,” even in calm water.
Scientists have recognized this reality for a long time. During the 1970s when the oil industry was poised to invade the Beaufort Sea, the Canadian government employed more than 100 researchers to gauge the impacts of an oil spill on Arctic ice. The researchers doused sea ducks and ring seals with oil and set pools of oil on fire under a variety of ice conditions. They also created sizable oil spills (one was almost 60,000 liters, a medium-sized spill) in the Beaufort Sea and tried to contain them with booms and skimmers. They prodded polar bears into a man-made oil slick only to discover that bears, like birds, will lick oil off their matted fur and later die of kidney failure. In the end, the Beaufort Sea Project concluded that “oil spill countermeasures, techniques, and equipment” would have “limited effectiveness” on ice-covered waters. The reports, however, failed to stop Arctic drilling.
Part of the illusion has been created by ineffective technologies adopted and billed by industry as “world class.” Ever since the 1970s, the oil and gas industry has trotted out four basic ways to deal with ocean spills: booms to contain the oil; skimmers to remove the oil; fire to burn the oil; and chemical dispersants, such as Corexit, to break the oil into smaller pieces. For small spills these technologies can sometimes make a difference, but only in sheltered waters. None has ever been effective in containing large spills.
Conventional containment booms, for example, don’t work in icy water, or where waves run amok. Burning oil merely transforms one grave problem—water pollution—into sooty greenhouse gases and creates air pollution. Dispersants only hide the oil by scattering small droplets into the water column, yet they often don’t even do that since conditions have to be just right for dispersants to work. Darryl McMahon, a director of RESTCo, a firm pursuing more effective cleanup technologies, has written extensively about the problem, and his opinion remains: “Sadly, even after over 40 years experience, the outcomes are not acceptable. In many cases, the strategy is still to ignore spills on open water, only addressing them when the slicks reach shore.”
The issue partly boils down to scale, explains Jeffrey Short, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research chemist who studied the aftermath of the 2010 BP disaster as well as the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, which grew at the alarming rate of half a football field per second over two days. “Go try and control something like that,” says Short. Yet almost 30 years after the Exxon Valdez contaminated much of Prince William Sound, the cleanup technology has changed little.”