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Park Board motion aims to protect Vancouver beaches from oil spill threat

Park Board commissioner Niki Sharma says the proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan’s oil sands pipeline—combined with the closing of spill response centres—would set the city up for disaster.

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Regional spill response centres closing down

One of the things Sharma says causes “great concern” is the shutdown of several environmental emergency response centres across Canada—including the office in Vancouver. Regional outposts of the Environmental Emergencies Program are generally responsible for coordinating the cleanup of oil spills occurring within federal jurisdictions, including waterways.

“If we don’t have the proper protections to even analyze what areas are of significant environmental concern and to respond properly to an oil spill…really what this is setting up is the potential for a disaster in this part of the world,” Sharma said.

Ben West, a campaigner with the Vancouver-based Wilderness Committee, says this latest announcement simply adds to the government’s poor track record on environmental protection.

“Just when you thought you couldn’t imagine anything stupider that the Harper government could do regarding oil tankers and oil exports, I mean, this is just really taking the cake for me,” said West.

“It’s remarkable to be facing this massive increase in tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet, along with what they’re proposing up north and at the same time cutting the budgets for the people who are actually responsible for response if a spill were to take place.”

Earlier in April, Environment Canada assured citizens that cutting back on these emergency teams would not have a negative impact on potential spill responses, as the agency will still be available to coordinate cleanup efforts through centralized call centres in Quebec. But critics say that “long-distance” plan doesn’t account for difficulties on the ground.

“This idea that it can all be coordinated in Montreal, it just doesn’t stand up to basic logic,” said West.

“The people who know the area, who know the people and the Coast Guard, and the various people in Marine Traffic Control—those are relationships that build up over years. There’s a local understanding that can’t just be replaced by someone over the phone in Montreal.”

A Kinder Morgan spokesperson responded to the Observer last week, expressing the company’s confidence in an internal spill response plan to deal with any potential emergencies.

“Kinder Morgan has effective spill response in place through its own preparedness, and through its coordination with other emergency response agencies in the area, and in particular with West Coast Marine Response Corporation. Kinder Morgan believes that this, combined with the Government’s additional commitment and funding to marine safety will contribute to maintaining, and improving as necessary, marine safety,” the company stated in an email.

For West, however, these assurances apply less to environmental damage than to the company’s ability to weather the legal storm.

“I don’t doubt that they’re prepared to clean up their own facilities if they have a spill on their own facility…but really what it looks like to me that they’re prepared for is a court battle when there’s an incident,” he said.

According to West, part of the difficulty is that oil tankers in the water fly “flags of convenience”, meaning that responsibility for an accident is often handed off to avoid excess risk for companies like Kinder Morgan.

“It’s often how companies absolve themselves of responsibility. They contract out elements of what they’re doing to these other small companies, so that they can point the finger at them as opposed to taking responsibility themselves,” he said.

“Kinder Morgan never really had any intention of being a tanker shipping company, but obviously the tankers fill up with oil somewhere and they wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the terminal and pipeline.”

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