Friday » December 11 » 2009

Sharp lessons in near-disaster

Times Colonist

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

If British Columbians want to know about potential marine disasters on their coast, they should pay close attention to news from Washington State’s environment department.
Last Wednesday night, as storm winds hammered the region, the bulk carrier Hebei Lion was anchored off Mayne Island. Its anchor failed to hold and the giant ship — more than two football fields in length — blew onto a rocky reef.
The next day, the Washington State environment department issued a news release providing public information on the incident, the threat and the state’s response. Staff and volunteer spill teams were put on standby alert.
Neither the B.C. nor Canadian government provided any information to the public that day, or in the days that followed.
The Gulf Islands Driftwood, apparently alerted by people monitoring marine radio, had a report Thursday. But because of the governments’ silence, virtually all British Columbians were kept in the dark for days.
The threat of a disaster was real. Dale Jensen, Washington’s manager of spill prevention and response, said there were “profound environmental and economic risks.”
The ship ran aground on rocks in Navy Channel, adjacent to Mayne, Pender, Saltspring, Saturna and Galiano islands. “Damage to fuel tanks on a cargo ship that size could have oiled the islands on both sides of the border,” Jensen said.
The freighter can carry 1.2 million gallons of fuel oil, about one-tenth the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster.
A spill was averted in this case, at least in part because of good luck. The Hebei Lion ran onto the rocks at low water during a rising tide. The hull was apparently not punctured and tugs were able to free the ship the next day.
The incident raises several questions.
The most obvious is why Washington State officials — who were notified of the grounding by B.C.’s Environment Ministry — considered this important enough to tell the public about, while provincial and federal agencies here stayed silent.
That should add to concern about the governments’ support for the Enbridge pipeline from Alberta’s oilsands to Kitimat and the jump in tanker traffic as large ships transport the oil to Asia.
The pipeline proposal, after several years, is winning increased commercial backing.
Producers see diversification opportunities in China and Korea and there is increasing concern that the U.S. climate-change policy will create barriers for oilsands exports, which require significant carbon emissions as part of the production process.
The debate about tanker safety, the risks for British Columbia’s coast and the long-term benefits for the province continues.
But proponents have stressed two factors. Government oversight and regulation would protect the environment even with a large volume of tanker traffic. (The pipeline would deliver 22 million gallons of oil a day to the coast.)
And the shipping industry has its own effective safeguards, the backers of increased tanker traffic maintain.
The Hebei Lion incident raises doubts on both counts. The grounding reveals that risks remain, despite the most modern technology.
And the response — particularly in terms of public accountability — undermines government claims of vigilance and openness.
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2009

~ by fredfelleman on December 12, 2009.

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