A lighthouse and attached house stand on a rocky shore overlooking a vast expanse of water. The distant shore is visible.

No spill response can eliminate risk to marine life in the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Editor’s note: A large number of Cortes, Read and Quadra Island residents are concerned about the potential for an oil spill as the volume of dilbit passing through Southern British Columbia increases.

By Sidney Coles, Capital Daily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Last week, Capital Daily reported that the new 74.5-metre (244-foot) Western Marine Response Corporation (WMRC) vessel named the K.J. Gardner will be docked in Beecher Bay early in the new year. The ship is purpose-built to patrol the BC coastline and respond in the event of an oil spill.

This additional response resource is being deployed in anticipation of the 34+ tankers per month (450 per year) that will soon come out of Burnaby’s Westridge Marine Terminal laden with oil from the TMX pipeline before making their way through the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

That oil that originates in the Alberta oil sands and travels a 1,150-km pipeline to the Burnaby Terminal, is high in bitumen and is notoriously viscous and dirty. To facilitate its transport through the pipeline, oil sands bitumen is chemically diluted to make what is called ‘dilbit.’ Canada has limited capacity to refine heavy crude oil like this so it needs to transport it in tankers to refineries with larger capacity in the US like Ferndale in Washington State.

The David Suzuki Foundation considers dilbit spills particularly toxic and hard to clean up. “Tar balls sink to the bottom of the water or hang in the water column, eluding conventional booms used to contain spills.”

En route to Washington, tankers carrying this heavy oil will travel the migration routes of significant Sockeye salmon that head up the Fraser River and past the Gulf Islands. Clear Seas, an independent research centre that supports safe and sustainable marine shipping in Canada, says the TMX project could represent a 9% increase in commercial ship traffic traveling through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Those tankers will also pass by the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve (RRER) off the coast of East Sooke where, according to Warden Derrick Sterling, “Humpbacks are visible every day.” According to the RRER site, Southern Resident orcas also pass south of Race Rocks reserve heading west, and Bigg’s (Transient) orcas pass, heading East.

Race Rocks is the most southerly part of Canada on the Pacific Coast, roughly one nautical mile from Rocky Point off the southern shore of Beecher Bay on Vancouver Island. The reserve’s name refers to the tidal race that swirls around its rocky outcrops at rates of up to eight knots.

RRER is home to a diverse range of large and small animal and vegetable marine life. It’s the site of haul-out and a pupping colony for Elephant Seals. California and Northern sea lions “haul out” there in by the thousands in the fall of each year, meaning they leave the water for periods of time to forage, rest and reproduce. The RRER is also host to thousands of migratory birds each year like Auklets, Petrels and is a winter roosting area for thousands of seabirds like Buffleheads and Ancient Murrelets.

Despite TMX assurances that all of its tankers will be carefully escorted by tug vessels through the Georgia and Juan de Fuca Straits and will receive extended pilot guidance to the Race Rocks area, no precautions are 100% infallible.

In 2019, the Natural Energy Board (NEB) conducted an investigation or what it called a ‘reconsideration of TMX’. The NEB report states that it agreed with Natural Resources Canada’s OH-001-2014 reporting that indicated that spilled diluted bitumen (the same type that will be transported from Burnaby in the super tankers) “could be prone to submergence within as little as one or two days and in large quantities over widespread areas.” That potential 24-hour submergence timeline falls well within WMRC’s low urgency response time of six hours and its high-urgency, one-hour response time but regardless of the response, oil spills can have immediate and lasting impacts on wildlife.

Time is of the essence

UBC Okanagan researcher and engineer Saeed Mohammaduin specializes in Oil Spill Response Methods (OSRMs). He says that time is of the essence. “Swift and efficient response to an oil spill is crucial to minimize the adverse consequences.” Mohammaduin is looking at ways to minimize the time and costs associated with (oil spill) mechanical retainment and recovery (MCR), oily wastewater management (OWM), and the volume of weathered oil (oil left on the surface) during the cleanup operations.

WMRC spokesperson Michael Lowry told Capital Daily, “We use different types of skimmers for different products, typically our brush skimmers are the most effective with the persistent oils. We do have experience cleaning up a diluted bitumen spill and our equipment was effective.”

When spills happen over large areas, they impact marine wildlife in multiple ways: fouling or oiling and oil toxicity. Wildlife impacted by spills are often hard to catch and recover. Whales are certainly too big to “catch” and recover but, in the event of a spill, Lowry explained that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) will work to divert and deter impacted whales from a spill area as it did in an incident around Bligh Island in the Nootka Sound in 2020.

Dolphins and whales can inhale or ingest spilled oil which can affect their lungs, immune and reproductive systems. Contributors to the Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea, an ongoing photo identification project reports that they have “photographed and identified over 800 individual humpback whales in the Salish Sea and western entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait.”

With spill events in mind, TMX (Canada) has set aside a $75 million Coastal Restoration Fund that will provide resources to restore coastal maritime ecosystems that “may be disrupted from natural resource extraction or transportation.”

Much thought and preparation across sectors and communities has gone into preparing for the coming migration of TMX super tankers through the Strait of Juan De Fuca. Coastal First Nations have been involved in mapping highly spill sensitive and high-risk areas and are involved in contracted response strategies.

Risk can never be entirely eliminated and there is a lot at stake in protecting the biodiverse marine environment the oil tankers will move through. Here’s hoping for the best in a worst case scenario.

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