BC Shipping News caught up with Michael Lowry, Manager, Com-munications, Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, to get a first-hand account of the response to the MV Marathassa spill in English Bay on April 8. While official reports will no doubt be forthcoming over the weeks ahead, Michael’s observations are meant only to give BCSN readers insight into a typical spill response — the many players involved and the steps taken to ensure an effective operation.
Photo above: WCMRC has vessels and assets stationed throughout Vancouver Harbour.
BCSN: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first hear there might be an incident in English Bay?
ML: At around 6:00 pm, both the Canadian Coast Guard and Port Metro Vancouver advised that they were hearing of a sheen in English Bay. I should note that CCG is working on a comprehensive timeline document that all agencies will sign off on. That document is still being drafted so I can only talk to what I know directly.
At 8:06 pm, we were officially activated by CCG. When WCMRC crews arrived on scene at 9:25 pm, they started encountering heavy oil so they began skimming recovery operations right away. At this point, it’s an unknown spill of unknown origin.
In a normal situation, the first thing the crew would do is control the source if it’s known. The next step is to contain it and then begin skimming operations. In this case, the source of the spill was unknown and, therefore, the product was unknown. We were suspecting it was bunker oil but at this point, there was no ship identifying themselves as the source. It wasn’t until 4:00 am that our crews, using the MJ Green’s infrared camera, suspected that the likely source was the MV Marathassa after oil continued to reappear at the stern of the ship following initial skimming operations. It was at that point the decision was made to boom the vessel.
BCSN: Could you describe what sort of efforts were made to identify the source?
ML: Transport Canada officials were onboard the Marathassa, trying to find a leak. Divers were sent down to look for leaks. They weren’t finding anything and that’s why it was not clear if it was that vessel. All our crews could do at that point was continue with skimming operations, which were ongoing throughout the night. Even though no official leak was found, the decision was made to boom that vessel. Once the decision was made, it was boomed within the hour.
BCSN: The media found an “expert” who reported that a U.S. response would have been less than half an hour. How accurate is that?
ML: I would like to dispel the notion that the length of time it took to boom the ship was somehow a reflection of a delayed response. Our crews were on scene within 80 minutes of being activated and began recovering product from the water and conducting containment sweeps. In those first hours it was still an unknown spill of unknown origin. In fact, it wasn’t until Friday that the Marathassa was officially identified as the responsible party. If you don’t know the source of the spill, you cannot boom it. It’s as simple as that.
BCSN: Could you describe the equipment and assets used during the operation?
ML: In total, we had about 35 staff working on the spill. We deployed 1,700 metres of boom — 1,100 during the initial 24-hour period to contain the Marathassa and another 700 to re-boom the ship because the oil on the boom was re-soiling the ship. We had six vessels, including the MJ Green, WCMRC’s newest vessel, on scene. Multiple vessels were dedicated to skimming sweeps — they were doing huge sweeps of English Bay, capturing the product before it reached the shore and then skimming the product they recovered. One of our mobile skimming vessels, the Burrard Cleaner No. 3, was sitting at the hull of the Marathassa collecting oil as it came out. The skimming operation was being directed from the air by Scott Wright, WCMRC’s Director of Response Readiness, up in CCG’s helicopter and Trevor Davis, South Coast Area Manager, was directing crews from the ground. Meanwhile, the MJ Green was finding patches of oil, chasing the oil down and cleaning it up.
By about 3:00 pm on April 9, the National Aerial Surveillance Program sent out their surveillance plane which calculates that, at that point, 80 per cent of the known product has been recovered. Ultimately, all of the recoverable product was captured so that 80 per cent was a snapshot of the situation at 3:00 pm.
BCSN: I’d like to understand more about how NASP was able to calculate the initial volume of the spill as well as confirm clean-up efforts were being effective. Further to that, “experts” in the media were noting that it’s impossible to clean more than 20 per cent of any given spill. Could you explain?
ML: Yes, it was ironic that at first, people were complaining that the operation was inadequate and then, they complained that it was impossible that the recovery rate was that high. In terms of calculating the size of the spill, the NASP plane has equipment on board that allows them to measure the size of the slick and the estimated thickness and, based on those parameters, determine the volume of the spill. The final number still needs to be confirmed by Transport Canada who will review the records and logs of the vessel and then compare that to the amount recovered by WCMRC to come up with a more accurate volume but the NASP calculation is usually pretty close.
Regarding the 80 per cent recovery, when you look at international averages for recovery rates, they’re primarily based on open-water spills — or unsheltered waters. In an unsheltered, open-water environment, recovery rates are lower because there is more wave action and other issues at play. WCMRC rates for sheltered recovery are much higher when the spill takes place in a sheltered environment.
If you look back historically, for example, in 2007 when we responded to the Inlet Drive spill, the recovery rate was about 80 to 90 per cent so the numbers reported in this spill are realistic. Having said that though, no two spills are ever the same — there are so many different factors — the weather, location, type of product, the tides and current. It’s very hard to compare individual spill response efforts in terms of per cent recovered.
BCSN: Could you compare this spill to the exercises you undertake on a regular basis?
ML: The operation worked exactly how the regime is set up to work. There is a spill and, in the absence of identifying the Responsible Party (RP), CCG steps in as the on-scene commander. So someone is always in charge. CCG initiated the Incident Command System (ICS) right away including Unified Command and the entire operation was run through ICS and included representatives from the Province (the BC Ministry of Environment); the Federal Government (CCG, Transport Canada, Environment Canada, Wildlife Services); First Nations (Tsleil Waututh and Squamish on site and many others by phone); and the Municipalities (Vancouver, West Vancouver and North Vancouver). There were about 90 people in total involved in the ICS.
The Incident Command Post was set up at Port Metro Vancouver’s Operations Centre and everyone worked together very effectively through the ICS system.
Once it became obvious that the source of the spill was the Marathassa, the captain and crew were very co-operative from what I understand. Through their P&I representative, they hired Polaris Applied Sciences Inc. to represent them in the Unified Command. However, CCG remained as the Incident Commander.
BCSN: Did you come away with any lessons learned?
ML: We recently did an exercise in Nanaimo which was a 1,000-tonne exercise. That exercise and the Marathassa spill reaffirmed the importance of collaboration with the municipalities and First Nations. Continuing to build those relationships will be an important part of the lessons learned. Fortunately, we had already been engaged with emergency planners in Vancouver, West Vancouver and the North Shore. The key lesson is making sure that the information gets passed on and making sure that everyone in those crucial early days is aware that things are in hand.
BCSN: On that note, the Mayor of Vancouver and the Premier of the Province came out with extreme criticism in the early hours of the spill. How did the people who were active in the operation feel when they heard that criticism?
ML: There was a true disconnect. To be standing in the Incident Command Post with people from the Province and the City, we were surprised to say the least. We’re standing side by side doing exactly what they’re saying we’re not doing. There was some serious frustration obviously. First responders worked throughout the night to protect Stanley Park and protect Ambleside and for those guys to be attacked as opposed to celebrated for their work was extremely demoralizing. So that was really unfortunate.
Eventually, Mayor Robertson did tour the ICP. Everyone in Unified Command went around the room and said how well they thought the response was going. Everyone acknowledged that the first 12 to 18 hours was, as is to be expected, a flurry of activity. But after that initial period, people developed a rhythm and worked within the ICS system and everyone in that room — the Province, First Nations, everyone was talking about how well it was going.
BCSN: Could you put that 2,700 litres into perspective — what are some examples of other spills where WCMRC has responded?
ML: The largest spill we’ve ever done is 100 tonnes (one tonne equals 1,000 litres). That was the Inlet Drive spill. There was a spill in Squamish in 2007 that resulted in about 39 tonnes and then there was the Queen of the North sinking. The Marathassa spill was less than three tonnes. We are regulated to clean up 10,000 tonnes but we have equipment capacity for 26,000 tonnes. That doesn’t mean we can’t do larger spills — but under the Canada Shipping Act regulations a Tier 4 10,000 tonne spill is the highest certification.
We get called out about 15-20 times per year. Typically they’re minor — pleasure craft or a lot of calls from vessel operators who may have seen something on the water. Everyone on the water has a responsibility to report a spill if they see one. We do get quite a few calls from people seeing sheens and slicks, but under the CSA, WCMRC must be activated by members, CCG, ports or a third party willing to pay for the spill response.
BCSN: I’d like to spend a minute on shore-side clean-up efforts — could you describe those?
ML: Environment Canada and the BC Ministry of Environment use a shoreline management technique called “SCAT” — the Shore-line Cleanup Assessment Technique. The idea with SCAT is that you divide the shore into segments and have teams of experts walk the beach and record the degree of oiling and recommend the best clean-up techniques. They will then summarize their findings and recommendations back to Unified Command for the operational implementation for the next Incident Action Plan. Then WCMRC deploys contractors to go in and clean that area. The contractors are companies that have been trained in advance on shoreline clean-up techniques. Because only trace amounts of oil were being found, the teams were using absorbent pads to pick up the oil. Had it been more than that, we would have employed more aggressive treatment techniques with the approval of the municipalities and First Nations. Each area is re-examined by SCAT experts and representatives from Unified Command and they will sign off on the cleaned segments.
BCSN: From start to finish, how long did the whole operation take?
ML: Our official last day was on Friday, April 24. The vessel went back up to Cascadia Terminal to load grain so it could complete its journey and we placed a precautionary boom around it there and then escorted it back out to its anchorage. It’s in an assessment mode now where crew keep checking the beaches to see if oil comes back up again. All of our vessels were decontaminated and placed back in a ready state.
The oil on the water was recovered by April 9 and the bulk of the shoreline clean up was completed in seven days with small teams conducting spot cleaning until April 24. The cleaning of the ship’s hull was completed on April 24.
BCSN: Another criticism from “experts” in the media was the idea that had the Kits Coast Guard base been kept open, it would have improved response time. Could you comment on that?
ML: In terms of our response time, no, it wouldn’t have made one bit of difference. And in terms of our response efforts, WCMRC does not include CCG equipment in our inventory. The regime is set up so that we, as the Response Organization, have the capacity to respond to spills so we don’t rely on what may or may not have been available from CCG.
BCSN: Would WCMRC benefit by having one of their own vessels and assets stationed at Kits?
ML: We have a fleet of 31 vessels. Eleven of those are positioned all around Vancouver Harbour. The MJ Green, for example, is stationed at Canada Place along with assets.
BCSN: Do you have any recommendations for additional resources that would assist your response efforts?
ML: That discussion is taking place within the larger context of a full regime review as part of the Tanker Safety Expert Panel reports. Some recommendations from their first report have already been made — for example, Area Response Planning is being implemented in four areas with higher levels of traffic. From that planning process, new standards for things like response times will flow. We’re very supportive of this — moving to planning standards that reflect the risk and the traffic volume will only serve to improve our capacity.