IN THE NEWS ~ "the government's decision to close B.C.'s regional office for emergency oil-spill responders is reckless"

Environment minister questions timing of federal cuts to oil-spill staff in B.C

Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, Online

   B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake has questioned the timing of the federal government's decision to remove oil spill staff from Vancouver just as industry is proposing an increase in oil tanker traffic in the harbour.

   "Obviously I was very concerned when I heard this," he said in an interview Friday.

   "I see it as a bit of a public relations issue, for sure. I mean, when you're talking about pipeline projects and increased pipeline capacity, to take these guys and move them doesn't look very good."

   Lake said that federal officials have informed his staff that five Vancouver employees dealing with "science and policy related to oil spills" - but not front-line responders - are being relocated to Montreal and Ottawa.

   The five are among 42 Environment Canada employees in the B.C./Yukon region affected by federal cost-saving initiatives, he said.

   Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson said that a more coordinated national model for the Environmental Emergencies Program will "realize ongoing savings" of $3.78 million.

   Said Lake: "They've told us - and I believe this to be true - that they [the five] are not boots on the ground, not the people who respond to an actual oil spill. That was a relief to know."

   As a part of a $5-billion project, Texas-based Kinder Morgan Energy plans to increase pipeline capacity to Metro Vancouver from Alberta to 850,000 barrels of crude oil daily from the current 300,000 barrels.

   That's enough to fill 25 to 30 tankers a month through the company's Westridge terminal in Burnaby.

   An oil spill in Vancouver harbour would have devastating environmental consequences, including for thousands of overwintering birds, species such as the surf scoter and Barrow's goldeneye.

   At the same time, the $5.5-billion Enbridge Northern Gateway project to deliver bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat would add an estimated 220 tankers per year to the fragile waters of B.C.'s north coast.

   Said Lake: "British Columbians won't tolerate any reduced ability to respond to adverse events in the marine environment - and from what we've heard, we don't believe that to be the case."

   Johnson said Environment Canada will continue to provide scientific advice in emergencies, and "neither Canadians nor the environment will be put at greater risk."

   Johnson noted the Canadian Coast Guard is the federal government's primary responder to an oil spill and that Environment Canada offers technical and scientific advice and "does not typically send staff members to the site of an emergency."

   B.C. typically takes the lead government role when spills affect coastlines, while Ottawa steps in when oil spreads to federal lands or the ocean and international waterways.

   In the event of a spill, Environment Canada can provide scientific advice to the lead agency by phone, Johnson said, including the location of environmentally sensitive lands or species at risk, weather forecasts, modelling predictions of the dispersion of a plume, or advice on cleanup techniques.

   "This is information we can, and will continue, to provide from a centralized location," he said.

   He could not provide more specific information on all 42 jobs affected by budget cuts.

   Opposition critics aren't buying the government's logic, saying that the decision couldn't come at a worse time.

   NDP energy and natural resources critic Peter Julian, MP for Burnaby-New Westminster, said in a statement that the government's decision to close B.C.'s regional office is reckless.

   "Closing the only west coast response centre for emergency oil spills, while on the other hand paving the way for increased oil tanker traffic - it's irresponsible and arrogant.

   "For the Conservatives to say to British Columbians, 'In the event of an environmental catastrophe, leave a voicemail message in Ottawa,' is shameful. How can they treat British Columbians so badly?"

   Vessels in Canadian waters must also have an oil-pollution emergency plan and an arrangement with an oil-spill response organization.

   Transport Canada, which regulates oil spill prevention and response, has certified the Western Canada Marine Response Corp. as the oil spill response organization to handle the west coast of B.C.

   The polluter is responsible for cleaning up any spill, appointing an on-scene commander and managing the response to the spill. The Canadian Coast Guard monitors the overall response, and, if the polluter is unable or unwilling to act, takes over the response command.

   lpynn@vancouversun.com

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