Sunday, April 19, 2015

Oil spills and dock fires

A week of environmental accidents that have only heightened the story that Howe Sound and the waters around Vancouver are at risk.

A 2700 litre spill of bunker fuel in English Bay took hours to be discovered and dealt with.  As a result, the beaches around English Bay have been exposed to highly toxic bunker oil, and while the visible damage may not be all that impressive, the microscopic damage could be much much worse.

Following that, a fire at the Squamish Terminal destroyed the creosote coated pilings at the freight terminal, releasing noxious smoke into the air shed and endangering 30 dock workers, all of whom escaped safely.  The response to that fire included fire fighting boats from Vancouver.  The damage from the fire has probably killed all or most of the 100,000 chum salmon fry that were being raised nearby, and it's unknown how it will have affected the herring spawn.  Herring spawn on those pilings which have been wrapped in fabric to protect them from the chemicals in the creosote.  That intervention has led to a record herring population resurgence in Howe Sound and that in turn has brought back dolphins and orcas (a family of which were seen off Deep Bay this week).  This spring, a heavy herring spawn on kelp took place near the Woodfibre site and on the pilings at the Terminal and Nexen Beach.  The hope is that these herring are already hatched and gone, but we won't know for sure until the science is done.  At any rate, the replacement pilings will almost certainly not be creosote soaked wood, and that will be good news for the future, which is pretty much all we have right now.

Industrial accidents, are inevitable in industrial societies.  But the way we respond to these accidents is what matters.  In the case of the oil spill, the federal government was largely panned for the fact that cuts to local Coast Guard resources, and the privatization of spill response has led to an erosion of oil spill response capability.  There are now danger signs posted up along the Vancouver and West Vancouver beaches, just as summer begins.  The federal government has largely been praising it's own efforts to respond to the spill, in the face of evidence, reason, or citizen demand to do better.

In the case of the Squamish fire, absolutely heroic efforts got everything under control, but the dock will need to be taken down and replaced and the damage to the environment may be long lasting.  The inlet is at a crossroads, at which we can decide whether or not to pursue an aggressive agenda of risky industrial activity in the Sound, or choose a restorative approach to the inlet, which could include some development activity such as renewable power generation and tourism, but which eschews extractive resource activities and the processing and transportation of dangerous cargo.

If the last week has meant anything, it will push a sharper awareness of the future of our inlet to the forefront, and stimulate a deeper conversation about what is appropriate for this place.