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Preparing for disaster: Marine responders team up with First Nation in oil-spill training exercise

Dry run of oil-spill response on the southeast coast of Galiano Island was part of Coastal Response Program that includes specific plans to protect 600 sensitive areas in the event of a marine disaster

Like links in a chain, 610 metres of a fluorescent orange oil-containment boom unfurl off the deck of a boat that is configured like a landing craft.

Crew members from the Malahat Nation’s environmental department grab the other end of the boom and use their vessel to guide it to a sand and gravel beach on the west side of Whaler Bay, on the southeast coast of Galiano Island.

Two band members scramble onto the shore, where they attach the end to a tree trunk. They then repeat the procedure on the east side of the bay.

It’s all part of a co-ordinated training exercise staged by the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation last week as part of its Coastal Response Program.

Stephanie Spencer, Malahat Nation’s marine stewardship co-ordinator, says conducting oil-spill response drills is very important. “Every time we are out exercising with spill-response partners, we are honing our skills and new lessons are learned. This will enable us to respond quickly and effectively in case of a real spill event,” says Spencer, 38, who on this day is working with three out of the half dozen members of the First Nation’s environmental department trained in oil-spill response.

They are the marine stewards of approximately 230 square kilometres of shoreline in the nation’s traditional territory. Spencer says they are protecting areas of both cultural and environmental significance to the nation.

“The cultural areas are important to keep intact for spiritual significance and to retain knowledge from the past and present. The environmental significance is important because everything is connected, and to keep our environment clean and healthy will provide food for present and future generations.”

While this is only an exercise, in the event of a real environmental disaster, the boom represents the first line of defence for hundreds of coves and bays that make up the shoreline of southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

The fear of an oil spill is always in the backs of the minds of those taking part in the exercise. After the Exxon Valdez struck a reef and spilled 40 million litres — 38,500-tonnes — of crude oil in Alaska in 1989, governments on both sides of the border enacted measures to improve oil-spill response protocols.

The Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, the only marine-response organization on the West Coast certified by Transport Canada, was established in 1976. Teams from the company deployed in Alaska to help in the cleanup and the lessons learned from that disaster bring into focus the responsibility they face protecting all 27,000 kilometres of B.C.’s coastline.

The marine response corporation operates a 24-hour spill emergency line, and its annual operating costs are funded through fees paid by its 2,300 members.

Any vessel more than 400 tonnes calling on a B.C. port is required to be a member, as are any oil-transporting vessel over 150 tonnes.

Membership does not include the cost incurred in a spill. The vessel’s owner is expected to pay for all of the cleanup costs — or carry the necessary insurance.

The containment boom is unfurled with help from the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue’s 32-foot rigid hull inflatable. The exercise today is to move the extended boom to the entrance to Whaler Bay. Had there been an oil spill, the boom would prevent oil from entering the bay, which houses a marina and a boat anchorage.

The bay is part of one of approximately 600 geographic response strategies the company has created so far — site-specific response plans that detail shoreline areas and the strategies and equipment to protect them from a potential spill.

The plans cover sites that are sensitive because of cultural, wildlife or environmental reasons.

Although the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue’s primary mandate is to save lives at sea, it has offered to render assistance if necessary.

“In the event of a marine disaster, under the marine concept of ‘vessels of opportunity,’ we will provide appropriate response.” says Mike Ervin, a member of Unit 36, Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, based out of Sidney. “Although we are primarily a search and rescue organization, exercises such as this help us stay fresh.”

Vessels of opportunity are any commercial and recreational vessels that can respond during an oil spill.

If there is a marine emergency, Ervin said, the marine search and rescue team is likely to be the first to the scene, where it can communicate what it observes, allowing other responders to “get ahead of the problem.”

This exercise was the fourth the team has taken part in in about a year, and the first joint one with members of the Malahat Nation, who worked alongside Western Canada Marine Response Corporation in identifying culturally and environmentally sensitive areas as part of the geographic response strategy plans.

The company has identified about 600 such sites since 2013, with more being added over time.

The plans, which are public, contain crucial information about operating issues, notification protocols, personnel mobilization, logistics and necessary materials.

Last week’s exercise is a dry run of one of those plans, with the shore anchor points based on directions on the plan.

“Geographic response strategies have been created so if there is a spill in that area, the amount of boom you will need is already figured out. This saves a lot of precious time during a real spill event,” said Spencer

Western Canada Marine Response Corporation responds to an average of 20 spills per year and has attended approximately 920 calls for service since 1976.

Transport Canada, which regulates the transportation of oil in Canada, sets out tiered response requirements should a marine spill occur and requires response organizations to have equipment in place to handle a 10,000-tonne spill.

A report prepared in 2012 showed the Strait of Juan de Fuca saw more than 11,000 transits in a year by commercial vessels of all sizes, including 1,200 oil tankers. The lion’s hare of the traffic — 38 per cent — is at the south end of the Inside Passage as vessels head to their destinations on both sides of the border.

Michael Lowry, spokesman for Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, says the Coastal Response Program evolved out of conversations with coastal communities and First Nations. “Many communities were interested in having a more active role in spill response and asked for greater transparency in the planning process,” Lowry says.

“Through the Coastal Response Program, we are involving interested communities and Nations in identifying coastal sensitivities, developing protection strategies, hosting equipment and getting trained.”

The company has close to 90 vessels, including a large offshore support vessel based in Victoria and a number of coastal response vessels, skimming vessels, landing craft, barges and assorted workboats in Port Alberni, Nanaimo, Beecher Bay, Fraser River, North Saanich and Vancouver harbour.

With about 200 full-time employees, it boasts a maximum two-hour response time if a spill takes place in Vancouver harbour and the Fraser River west of the Port Mann Bridge. It promises a maximum response time of six hours for the remainder of the south coast.

A key part of the quick response is eight so-called Coastal Response Packages — static storage containers filled with oil-spill equipment, including approximately 518 metres of boom — located in marine communities in Barkley Sound, the Sooke area and the Gulf Islands.

The company says it is actively looking for coastal communities where it can place a further 20 containers throughout southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Marinas or property owners with waterfront access will be compensated to host the containers.

“Because coastal communities are the first to be impacted by a spill, we believe they should be integrated into spill response planning. Hosting a Coastal Response Package in your community reduces response times and allows communities to be better prepared to protect their shorelines,” said Lowry.

For more information, go to or contact Lowry at [email protected].

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