The Big Spill

(The second in a series of articles from the 2019 Campbell River Emergency Preparedness Trade Show.)

I was immediately drawn to Western Canada Marine Spill Response Corporation (WCMRC) booth. This company founded in 1976 and cleans about 20 spills a year. Most of these are relatively small, like the incident in Gorge Harbour, Cortes Island. I was more interested in the fact they cleaned up the big spill in Burnaby, during 2007 – which gives us some insight into what a major bitumen spill on the West Coast of British Columbia might look like.

WCMRC responds to tug sinking in Howe Sound with containment and protection boom. October 2019 – Courtesy WCMRC

The Biggest Spill, So Far

“The biggest spill we’ve ever clean up was a diluted bitumen spill in 2007, in Burrard Inlet. A backhoe had hit a pipeline. [The spill] was on land, but it got into the storm drains and came down into Burrard Inlet,” said Lowry.

According to CBC News, more than 250,000 litres of “crude oil” gushed out and “about 70,000 litres flowed into Burrard Inlet, sparking a $15-million cleanup.”

Lowry estimates the spill actually consisted of about 100 tonnes, or 100,000 litres, of diluted bitumen

How long did the clean-up take?

“The on water piece was a couple of weeks. The shoreline piece took longer … I believe it was a month or so, or maybe a couple of months…”

“Recovery rates are a very contentious topic. A lot of people have different numbers … [which] depend a lot on the kind of product; where it’s spilt; how much is spilt. Different products have different evaporation rates. With diesel the recovery rate is quite low because most of it evaporates. With heavier products, you can recover a fair amount. With the Burnaby spill, I believe the recovery rate was about 90% … “

The Big Spill
Western Canada Marine Spill Response Corporation booth at the 2019 Campbell River Emergency Preparedness Trade Show, Michael Lowry on right – Roy L Hales photo

What Happened To The Remaining 10%?

“Some of it evaporates; some dissipates into the water column. So it is not like the 10% is sitting on a beach somewhere … In any spill, you are going to be cleaning up until there is no more oil to be cleaned up … There are a number of players involved: including Environment Canada; the BC Ministry of the Environment. When we’ve recovered all the product that we can find, people go out – environmentalists go out – they look at the environment .. If they find any more product, we clean that up … We aren’t the ones who decide the spill is finished. There are other people involved who make those decisions.”

Five Years After The Burnaby Spill

What does this mean for anyone living within the spill area?

Burnabynow interviewed one of the residents who expressed satisfaction with Kinder Morgan’s restoration efforts. She remembers it taking about 30 months to get her property back to its original state. A study commissioned by Kinder Morgan stated that, five years after the spill, “recovery endpoints” for water, intertidal sediment, crabs, subtitle sediment and fucus (brown algae) have been met. But “there are residual levels of contamination in mussels that have not yet met the agreed upon endpoint levels.”

So I think it is probably fair to say that, eventually, a spill site can be restored to something that at least closely resembles what it was like before. A number of Burnaby residents left the area before the restoration period was over. Others stayed. 

The Big Spill
One of the WCMRC vessels employed at Port Melon – Courtesy WCMRC

What About “The Big Spill”?

The 2007 spill was relatively small compared to what might occur if the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion is built. Is WCMRC ready to handle a big spill?

“Absolutely. That is what we are built for; what we train for. When we talked earlier about the increase in tanker traffic because of Tans Mountain, we are actually increasing our capacity on the coast as well … We’re going to be building six new bases along the shipping routes. We are going to be adding 40 new vessels to the fleet and 120 new personal. So whenever there is new risk on the coast, we are going to grow to match that risk,” says Lowry.

Diluted Bitumen Floats

But doesn’t bitumen sink? And isn’t it almost impossible to clean up?

“We don’t have bitumen on the coast, it’s diluted bitumen – a totally different product. The bitumen mined in Alberta is too thick to go through a pipeline. So they dilute it and that is what flows through the pipeline.”

“There has been a lot of misconception regarding whether diluted bitumen sinks or floats. It floats. [Diluted Bitumen] is lighter than water and it floats on the surface. How do I know that? Two reasons:

  1. “We have actually cleaned it up before …” (in Burnaby during 2007).
  2. “The Federal Government, through Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada, has been studying this product for three years. They’ve built specialized test tanks, in Alberta, to test this product. They simulate wave action, they simulate sentiment and even after four weeks of testing this product it has not sunk.”

(In the podcast Lowry describes the circumstances in which heavy products, like diluted bitumen will sink. He says the most effective way to clean that up is to send divers down with suction tubes. “It is going to be more expensive and will take longer, but can be done.”)

The Big Spill
Containment and protection boom supporting the salvage operation of a derelict vessel run aground in Gorge Harbour, Cortes Island. February 2019 – Courtesy WCMRC

A Typical Small Spill Clean-Up

There is a sense in which it almost seems unfair to focus on the biggest of the more than 700 spills Western Canada Marine Spill Response has cleaned up so far. In the podcast, Lowry describes a more typical clean-up operation:

  1. Contain the spill (if it is a leaking vessel, wrap it with boom).
  2. Shore line protection (boom off sensitive areas).
  3. Get the oil off the water as quickly as possible
  4. Beach clean-up (Often flushing the beach, so that the oil goes out into the water where it can be more easily recovered).

Top Photo credit: WCMSR containment and protection boom deployed in Howe Sound, October 2019 – Courtesy WCMRC

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