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As fuel spill pollutes beaches, destination of toxic material remains unclear

English Bay oil spill, fuel spill, bunker fuel, Coast Guard
Photo of English Bay spill clean up by Jeremy Board

Nearly a full week after the toxic spill in English Bay, key details regarding the clean-up and disposal of contaminated articles remain unclear. 

After the grain ship MV Marathassa spilled in English Bay on Wednesday, responders agreed on Saturday – days after the incident – to hire a contractor to dispose of items contaminated with the leaked bunker fuel, the Vancouver Observer has learned. 

The Ministry of Environment stated in an email the contract went to Terrapure Environmental (formerly known as NewAlta), headquartered in Burlington, Ontario, to dispose of the spill contents in accordance with a waste-management plan agreed upon by members of Unified Command on April 11, days after the spill happened.

"MoE (Ministry of Environment) developed the Waste Management plan that was signed off by Unified Command Saturday," Ministry of Environment spokesperson David Karn said. 

Destination of bunker fuel-contaminated materials 

A spokesperson for WCMRC, a privately funded firm legally responsible for 27,000 kms of British Columbia coastline, told the Vancouver Observer the materials have been "off-loaded at our barge" to be disposed of by "a contractor." 

When reached to comment on specifics, Terrapure Environmental spokesperson Greg Jones spokesperson said:

"I can confirm for you that we are in fact taking some materials, but we are a sub-contractor to the primary responder on the clean-up Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC)."

Follow-up questions received no response. 

The Vancouver Observer has learned there was no plan before Saturday for the disposal of absorbent booms, pads and other items used to clean-up last week's spill. Companies have yet to disclose any details around the transport, storage and destination of toxic, contaminated articles. 

Terrapure's website does not list a waste management service in B.C., but mentions a "used lubricating oil re-refinery in North Vancouver, B.C." among its operations. When asked for further clarification, Terrapure spokesperson Greg Jones directed all questions to WCMRC. 

Bunker fuel washed up on Jericho beach. Photo by Jeremy Board

Toxic fuel still in the water

The City of Vancouver has now said toxic "Bunker Fuel C", which is known to cause skin and eye irritation, as well as carcinogenicity, is still in the water. A city manager's report presented to council on Tuesday notes that bunker fuel oil can be carried hundreds of miles in the form of scattered tarballs by winds and currents. During the Selendang spill in Alaska, tar balls were found 1-3 meters below surface. 

According to city manager Ballem, globules of toxic Bunker Fuel C — the fuel used to drive most marine cargo vessels — have been reported at Sunset Beach, Crab Beach, New Brighton, English Bay, North Shore, Inner Coal Harbour and in Stanley Park at Siwash Rock and Second Beach.

“There is a real concern that we don’t know how much oil had come out,” she said.

Bunker fuel is expected to wash up on the shore for weeks to come and a major mitigating factor has been an apparent pattern of vague information presented by Unified Command, City Manager Penny Ballem told council Tuesday morning. 

On Monday, Coast Guard Commissioner Jody Thomas told a boardroom full of reporters she was "extremely happy" with the "world class" response.

City manager concerned over delays

Thomas echoed statements made by Minister of Industry James Moore that 80 per cent of the toxic bunker fuel C had been contained and extracted from the bay.

The next day, Ballem's address in the city council chamber noted a major deposit of toxic bunker fuel underneath Marathassa and echoed a call to stay out of the water, off the beaches and away from wildlife effected by the spill.  

“Bunker oil is very toxic, so whether [the spill] is big or little, the reaction has to happen in a short time-frame. It is a major concern for any ship in the bay.”

“The Coast Guard has been hamstrung,” said Councillor Jang in response to the city manager’s report. Jang said he is shocked by how far the toxic bunker fuel spill spread before the Coast Guard response.

He questions the credibility of numbers reported by Coast Guard Commissioner Jody Taylor. He said the federal government's decision to close the Kitsilano point Coast Guard is the root cause of delays, and he "is not enormously pleased with the response." 

Councillor Jang noted he remembers ships with booms at the Kitsilano station and recalls a meeting with Commissioner Thomas, in which she said the closure was a “done deal." 

In the City Council chamber, Ballem explained the heavy viscous nature of bunker fuel tends to form into sinkable bubbles or globules in water that suspend in the shallows and low tide banks before washing up on shore.

She also noted that of the 20 to 30 oiled birds recovered, many were discovered in Vanier park, location of the closed Kitsilano Point Coast Guard station.

She said the City does not have the means to monitor deep water and is reliant on reports from the Coast Guard. Ballem said the critical questions are how much oil is beneath the water's surface, and what the impact will be on fisheries and marine life. She indicated there are plans to monitor and report back to City Council in the coming months. 

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