Images of an oil pollution spill with depictions of oiled birds and oil-soaked coastlines resonate loudly in the homes and offices of citizens, politician and government agencies. A ship-source oil spill is messy at the best of times, but when it results from a ship invited to enter a port of refuge, matters can become a lot more complicated. When a ship is in distress from heavy weather or breakdown, immediate action must often be taken to protect lives, the environment and property. Generally, and historically, the best approach is to permit the vessel to enter a safe port, a place of refuge.
The underlying policy problem, worldwide and in B.C., is the natural human dynamics that lead local ports to act in their own interest, often to the detriment of the greater regional and perhaps international interests. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) defines a place of refuge as “… a place where a ship in need of assistance can take action to enable it to stabilize its condition and reduce the hazards to navigation, and to protect human life and the environment.” The places of refuge problem arises, from a policy perspective, when a ship requests access to a refuge, defined by the IMO as “… what to do when a ship finds itself in serious difficulty or in need of assistance where there is no immediate risk to the safety of life of persons on board.” A natural response is “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY). By permitting a vessel to access a port of refuge, the coastal state runs the risk of incurring some environmental damage to the place of refuge. However, the greater risk may be to the entire region if the ship is refused access to refuge, leading to a major catastrophe over a much wider area.
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