A must read from my hero in the fishing field and hugely respected former DFO officer Otto Langer. – Rafe
Q1. Did the government respond to this spill in an ‘exceptional way with an immediate measured response and with knowledgeable people and the equipment necessary for the clean-up’. This is near the exact press lines used by the head of the Canadian Coast Guard and two Conservative cabinet ministers in the past few days.
Otto Langer: I feel the CCG Commissioner and Ass. Commissioner and federal MPs (eg. Moore and Pritchard) have done a great deal of spin doctoring to try and show that the feds and the CCG did respond in a responsible and effective manner. As I understand it the sailor that reported the spill did not see a CCG boat on site for at least 3 hours after the spill and the clean-up company was not on site until 6 hours later. In that this is in the middle of a large west coast city and in the middle of Canada`s busiest port this is quite sad. If you live in a more remote area of our large coast and you are concerned about spill response time and effectiveness you have every legitimate reason to be totally doubtful of corporate and government response times and abilities. If the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station was still in existence (the busiest in Canada prior to its closure by the Harper Government) it could have responded to the spill within 20 minutes (my estimate). The retired commander of that station says they could have responded in just 10 minutes and had booms around the leaking ship in 30 minutes.
Q2. Is a few hours of delay “an immediate and exceptional response”?
OL: Once oil is in the water in almost any spill in almost any circumstance, it is gone and the challenge to gather it up deceases by a geometric or exponential scale depending on fuel type, weather and water conditions. In the recent Lemon Creek spill the booms were not put into place for a reported 10 hours. In a river that is outrageous in that in 10 hours (more like 10 minutes) 95% of all the fuel spilled will be long lost downstream and absorbed into the banks of a river. Here you spend a vast fortune in time and money to catch just the last 5% of the fuel! In English Bay or in Lemon Creek the clean-up equipment and clean-up staff must be on site within minutes of a spill to be most effective. With each passing hour an effective clean-up becomes a much greater and often an impossible task. To pretend that the response to this spill in the middle of a harbour was “immediate” and “exceptional” is nothing more than propaganda to make the government look good.
Q3. What could or will be the environmental impacts of the spill into English Bay – Burrard Inlet?
OL: (not a short and simple story but here it is in lay terms) Bunker fuel is thick oil that is left over product of the refining process. The thick residual product of the refinery is used in asphalt or to run large endurance motors such as on ships since it is cheap fuel. It is often so thick it has to be heated or diluted with a light oil to be piped around i.e. made to flow. It in some ways is similar to bitumen (tar sands oil which has to be diluted with light oil like kerosene or naptha to allow it to flow – often in a 3:1 bitumen to kerosene ratio and then called ‘dilbit’).
Bunker fuels are especially difficult to handle or cleanup. It is toxic and smells like fresh asphalt and sticks to everything and covers and smothers everything it reaches including inter-tidal life (Fucus, eel grass, marshes, clams, limpets, etc) in the marine environment. It will even coat the skin and the gills of animals frequenting the spill site causing a toxic and smothering effect i.e. lethal impact. Once marine life from crustaceans, clams to seaweed is coated with such oil it will most often suffer a slow death. This is due to smothering and a direct toxic effect.
In addition to the direct coating impact Bunker fuel is toxic and can have other negative impacts on other aquatic life including bird and marine mammal life. Bunker oil has most of the smaller molecules stripped out of it by the refining process so as to produce gasoline, jet fuel, diesel etc. The lighter or smaller molecules are often the most toxic. The larger molecules with a high paraffin wax like component in it is less toxic gram for gram but such heavy fuels do also have persistent carbon ring (benzine rings) compounds in them and they are very toxic and can accumulate in marine life and have an acutely toxic or sub-lethal effect. Also as noted above, to make bunker fuel flow the lighter fuels like more toxic diesel is added into it for commercial use. The sub-lethal effects are hard to demonstrate in that they can later impact survival of that organism or impact its growth, reproduction etc. Sub-lethal impacts are most often the more significant impacts that we do not see and unfortunately do not get overly concerned about. Such impacts will not be noted by any ordinary monitoring but more so in the research lab or possibly by a conclusion that the offspring of that impacted generation did not mature and return to complete the life cycle. That is also difficult to prove in that all stocks / populations from different areas are mixed in any multi-waterway area.
The lighter fractions of oil in the bunker fuel (including any diluent to make it flow) will disperse and evaporate most readily within days to weeks or if in sediments, months later. These more toxic impacts of the lighter oils will therefore last a shorter time. The larger molecules largely making up the bulk of the bunker fuel will persist much longer in the environment and can be found from months to many years after a spill. Their cumulative impact can be greater than the shorter term impact of the more toxic lighter fractions found in that spilled oil. Of course both impacts occur at the spill site and have an at least additive impact.
When I covered the Cherry Point oil refinery spill in 1972 the Alaska crude oil covered the sandy beaches at Crescent Beach, left deposits on the mud flats in Mud Bay and well coated the rubble beaches at White Rock. In many ways heavy crude and bitumen oil has similar impacts to bunker fuels especially as related to the coating and smothering of shorelines, marine life and in their clean-up difficulties. The chemistry will of course vary from different bunker fuels to bitumen to other more heavy crude oils. Above all, they will all break into droplets in the water and often form a water in oil emulsion and sink.
In the 1972 White Rock spill (from Cherry Point terminal) area the impact of the coating of the marine life on the rocks was relatively rapid with many forms of rock life succumbing to the oils smothering and toxic effects and falling off the rocks. When I checked the same rocks a year later it was obvious that a wax like coating persisted on the rocks and marine life (eg. barnacles) that had recovered could or would not adhere to those waxy rocks. That fraction of the crude oil or the bunker fuel would persist for years. Bunker would have more of the wax like fractions in it than most crude oils. I observed the same on the Islands around Alert Bay in 1972 when the Irish Starduct ran into an island and lost many tonnes of its Bunker C oil into the surrounding waters. Coated marine life like barnacles, clams, limpets, abalone and chitons held onto their habitat rock for a few days but within a week or so after the spill they were dead and most had dropped off of their host rocks.
The impact of an oil spill into an estuary (English Bay is part of the Fraser River estuary) of the world’s largest salmon river should not be underestimated. As the oil mixes with the water oil globules will appear in the water column and lumps of oil will entrain water and form a brown mousse and can sink. This allows more of the oil to dissolve into the water where it can directly affect fish life from zooplankton to young salmon. Also I have seen young salmon that will feed or attack almost any particle in the water from paint chips off a bridge being sand blasted to oil droplets. This ingestion is very harmful to their survival. If one closely observes False Creek dock areas at this time of the year you will see many schools of chum salmon fry swimming around and feeding on the surface of the water. This behavior is of great concern when oil in on and in the water in that it will bring such feeding fish into direct contact with the oil. Fish do not simply swim below an oil slick and can ignore its impacts.
The English Bay spill indeed occurred at the worst time of the year considering many criteria for assessing ecosystem impacts. This time of the year we have billions of young fish in our coastal areas including English Bay, Burrard Inlet and False Creek. These fish will include young newly hatched herring, eulachon and other smelt as well as millions of juvenile salmon coming out of Indian Arm and the Fraser River.
Q4. Should government not be monitoring the effects of the oil spill on the ecosystem?
OL: Yes they should but its easier said than done if you want a more complete picture of the impacts of that oil spill. Unless the impacts are very direct and lethal one often cannot see overall ecosystem impacts and sub-lethal effects. To determine if chum fry will be affected (millions in this area at this time of the year) one would have to be out on the water with boats, nets and collect fish under the slick area and in an unaffected area and examine the survivability of those animals over several days or examine their gut contents to see if they are feeding on oil droplets. If they are, they would suffer greatly and probably not survive. They would become moribund and be then eaten by other fish or sea gulls. One would probably not see an open water fish kill in such a circumstance. It’s much easier to see if birds have their feathers coated with oil or is the fur of seals, sea lions or otters contaminated with oil. That alone may be lethal but if they are ‘self cleaning’ themselves (licking off the oil) they will probably poison themselves. To leave the oil on their feathers or fur is also lethal! They are more or less doomed once their covering is coated with oil. In such a circumstance one has to do good monitoring but determining impact will most often be done by relating to other oil spill experiences and well controlled laboratory work e.g. biosssays, growth studies, etc.
Q5. What should we expect from the government as to monitoring. protection and clean-up and prevention?
OL: How can we expect government to do anything of this sort when government has laid off most scientists and habitat biologists that used to do this work as I did over the past many decades while with DFO? Now one has to expect volunteer groups like the Vancouver Aquarium to do this work – it’s very shameful especially when we downgrade environmental protection and neuter environmental laws and push oil pipelines, tankers, new fossil fuel finds and port development at any and all costs.
In terms of response the CCG has shut down offices and cut staff in Vancouver – Canada’s largest port! The response from the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station would have been immediate and more responsible than what we did see in the past week. For the present CCG to state otherwise is a cruel public hoax. There is absolutely no doubt that the federal representatives did exaggerate the federal response as “immediate and exceptional”. Who do they think they are fooling with this propaganda? They were slow to respond to a spill in the middle of a large coastal Canadian city and in the middle of Canada’s largest port. While this is happening we have the same port i.e. PMV doing everything to expand the port and accept such high risk commodities as jet fuel tanker imports into the Fraser River and daily exports of bitumen out of PMV via English Bay. What should one now expect of the CCG response to a spill on our North Coast or almost anywhere on our non-urban coastline or even again in Port Metro Vancouver’s harbour if a storm was brewing at the time of the spill?
Q6. What should our spill prevention and clean-up expectations be?
OL: The government, Enbridge, Kinder Morgan, Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corporation and others would have you believe that once we have more tankers and oil shipment we will have better clean-up capability and prevention is now state of the art i.e. “world class”. This is crass propaganda and the public must be wise enough to see that once you have more freighters and more tankers and more oil handling on our waters there is still a great chance of spills despite new and better ways of preventing spills. Once any oil is in the water you will have confusion in terms of communications, spill response, who is in charge and within hours finger pointing will be the political activity of the day. Anarchy often rules in the first several hours or days of most significant spills.
Once the oil is in the water, the battle for good and effective environmental protection is largely lost. With each passing minute (in storms, fast moving water) or in each passing hour the probability of containing the oil and getting it out of the water is greatly diminished – often by at least a geometric or in worse scenarios by an exponential factor. In spills such as involving lighter (that are often more toxic – vegetable oils being an exception to that toxicity rule) the oil will spread more rapidly but can also evaporate more quickly especially condensate, naptha, gasoline and jet fuel. Diesel will be more persistent and then the larger molecule fuels will be very resistant to breakdown or evaporation but will spread a bit more slowly unless driven by wind or water currents.
The public has to appreciate that when Premier Clark tried to gain some public relations advantage by documenting world class pipeline and marine prevention and clean-up standards it should not give you much comfort. Those standards will rarely be met and even if exceeded, once the oil is in the water, the battle is largely lost. In most significant spills (the English Bay spill was a less significant spill) most of the oil will never be recovered. Some will evaporate and much will end upon the shoreline and even sink as water in oil emulsion or adhere to sediments and sink. Once the oil is on the beach the less viscous fraction of it will get into the beach gravel, sand, under the rocks and into the windrows of logs and seaweed. Here it is near impossible to clean -up and the cleanup can be as destructive as the spill itself. I have seen bulldozers used to clean up gravel and and contaminated beaches. This is destructive and a crude method of clean-up. Also in the Alaska spill (Exxon Valdez) hot water and steam was used to get oil off the rocks. The debate has to be – do we leave the oil to nature in a ‘wild’ area or do we scald the beach and cook everything on it to get the beach clean.
In the Crescent Beach area spill in 1972 straw probably was one of the then more effective agents to get oil off the beaches – with many volunteers and rakes, forks etc. In the rubble areas at White Rock Surrey staff wanted the thick oil off the rocks before people made contact with it. They even tried to use naptha and talcum powder to dissolve the oil and then absorb it onto the powder. This added a very toxic light oil to the beach that would kill everything that the crude oil had not killed and the absorbed crude oil on the talcum powder would then float off to contaminate the food web in the bay. Putting the oil out of sight is not putting it out of mind if you are concerned about the living creatures in our waterways.
Spill prevention is the only alternative and as we are constantly reminded – despite the world class standards etc. we will always have oil spills! There is no safe oil spill clean-up method other than physical clean up which often is less than highly effective in most cases. At times one would just like to be able to burn the oil if possible at the spill site or use oil dispersant to break the oil into minute droplets and they would then just disappear from view and off the boats, booms and surface of the beaches. This method of oil dispersal has been very controversial for over 40 years due to dispersant toxicity and the act of putting surface oil slicks into the water column. Dispersants should not be considered as a compromise solution. One has to just look at the devastating impacts of the massive of oil dispersant use at the BP Deep Water Horizon spill just a few years ago. In the recent English Bay case – the dispersed oil would all get into the water column and be available to the billions of young fish (salmon, smelt, herring, etc) in the bay at this time of the year. Dispersed oil may help protect bird life (disperse the oil before they get coated) but the oil then has the most toxic impact on the food they depend upon. There are no highly effective clean-up methods and no simple solutions or good compromises.
Q6. Can Christy Clark and the Province do a better job than the Coast Guard?
OL: Premier Clark was playing political games and if you are in the provincial government many feel you can do no wrong by attacking the federal government. Christy Clark’s claims are similar to that of the NDP Premier Glen Clark of some 20 years ago when he demanded that BC take over the fishery in BC. BC is desperate to have an LNG industry to just support core services eg. health and education. Where will they now get the resources and expertise to build and staff a fleet of ships and boats to protect our coastline? Will she next take over marine rescue and then the navy and the Comox airforce base?
If Premier Clark is so concerned about oil spills and wanting to take the lead role in spill prevention and clean-up we must remind her that it was her government that partly allowed the spilling of a giant amount of jet fuel into Lemon Creek two years ago and then was totally ineffective in directing any proper cleanup response and then refused to take any legal action against those that caused this highly preventable spill that destroyed all life in a part of a river. Also was it not the Premier Clark government that just approved the entry of tankers of highly toxic and flammable jet fuel intothe Fraser River despite predictions by the proponent of certain spill probability and against the wishes of local government and the public. Here the federal government indeed rejected a similar project to import jet fuel into the Fraser River some 25 years ago because it was too great of a hazard. Such political posturing is indeed very shameful when it is so contradictory.
A7. In summary – what can we say about this spill?
OL: In retrospect the English Bay spill was a good learning experience or maybe another lesson we must learn from. It was in a very sensitive environment for aquatic life, a socially sensitive area and above all we were lucky – it was a small spill by spill standards with limited impact in an area where we should be best equipped to set so called ‘world class standards. In my 45 years in is type of work each spill post mortem review usually concludes that some things did go wrong such as response time, communications, ineffective clean-up equipment, techniques etc. After each spill government agencies conclude that we have learned a great deal and this will not happen again! However it does happen again and again. Advances have been made to address oil spill risk and spill clean-up. However, government has made many changes in the past few years that will not improve upon the situation due to staff cuts, loss of will to do the job, office closures and above all the cutting of environmental legislation that could be used to build upon our experiences if government will was there to protect the environment as they say they are doing. The will to protect the environment is plainly at a much lower priority level than the will to promote the economy at nearly any environmental and social cost. This of course does include the industries that find, develop and transport oil.
The bottom line is – as long as we promote the use and export and import of such hazardous commodities there will be spills. Once the product is spilled there most often is no safe and effective clean-up method. These spills are simply an unfortunate cost of our life-style and in government’s and industry’s less than diligent approach to set and meet the so called world class standard in prevention and mitigation when all goes wrong. If the oil is not spilled and safely gets to its end user, it will still have a great and ongoing and cumulative negative impact on our climate and environment. We are still living in denial of the overall cumulative negative impacts of the excessive transport and use of oil.
Otto E. Langer MSc
Fisheries Biologist and Aquatic Ecologist