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  • No such thing as a small oil spill 

    Stephen Hume

    The greatest risk to our coasts is not oil tankers, but all the other marine vehicles that carry oil—from tugboats to BC Ferries and container ships from China. 


    ENCOUNTER THE DIABOLICAL AFTERMATH of an oil spill and the evil consequences it inflicts upon wild creatures and the sacred spaces they inhabit and you can never forget. 

    It’s three decades now since I retrieved oil-soaked seabirds from the coastline that reaches from Sooke Harbour to the mouth of the San Juan River at Port Renfrew—what’s now the Juan de Fuca trail with its iconic tourist brochure beaches Mystic, China, Sandcut, Sombrio, Botanical.

    Indelible images remain as stark as ever, stirred to life by reports of “small” oil slicks spreading again: one from a 52-year-old shipwreck near Yuquot; another from a barge sunk at dockside in Port McNeill on Christmas Eve.  

    On that day 30 years ago, oyster-coloured banks of fog settled on the dark sea, shrouding the whole of the distant southern shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A single white sail scudded down its distant outer edge, a big sloop catching the combined currents and light airs, making way for Neah Bay or somewhere beyond. 

    Above the mist, a darker band of forest, then paler rain cloud, its grey-bottomed layer pierced abruptly by the glittering, snow-clad peaks of the Olympic Mountains. In the foreground, the Aurora massif, Sourdough Mountain, and behind them Snowdome and eventually the crags of Mount Olympus itself, flanked by ice fields.

    I had paused to contemplate this view, still and vivid as a landscape painting. If there’s a sight to stop the breath quite the way that vista does, expanding from the South Island across foam-flecked, ultramarine straits into the vast rain shadow of those austere mountains soaring two-and-a-half kilometres into the sky, I’ve yet to find it. 

    It was one of those otherwise bleak and narrow days that populate the weeks before Christmas. The light seems uncertain. There’s a bite of snow in the air — but not quite. A hint that any precipitation might decide to come as sleet — but not just yet. Or rain — more likely, but maybe not until tomorrow. 

    I was walking Whiffin Spit, that long bar of sand and gravel thrown up by tireless tides and swirling currents. It curves its white mile of beaches into Sooke Narrows, a perfect natural breakwater sheltering the finest natural harbour on Canada’s West Coast. 

    These days it’s a destination for walkers, birdwatchers, amateur botanists, landscape painters and practitioners of Zen-like mindfulness, all heeding the accolades plastered over Facebook, TripAdvisor, Nature Canada, Victoria Trails and the various websites of enthusiastic real estate developers, tourism marketers, bed and breakfast operators and lodge owners from Port Renfrew to Victoria.

    All those years ago, Whiffin Spit still seemed a relatively out-of-the way spot. It had its local aficionados but appreciation of its charms had yet to spread much beyond Victoria. Today, appreciation of its Ruskinesque charms makes it one of the better-known landscape features of the region. 

    And not without reason. It’s a living symbol of the beauty that surrounds those lucky enough to live on the South Coast of BC. Combers come sweeping in to spend themselves in creamy patterns on the shingle. The muscular, glass green coil at the end of the spit where tides turn the corner into its lee and spill into Sooke Harbour is a menacing evocation of the serpent-like sisiutl, the supernatural shape-shifter who reigns in the deeps. And, in the background, that stunning view—what’s not to celebrate?

    Those timeless things didn’t change in the long millennia before Manuel Quimper anchored the Spanish navy’s sloop Princesa Real there 230 years ago and commented on the beauty of the place, its first known entry into European consciousness. They haven’t changed since. 

    But as I made my way past the stunted, wind-sculpted underbrush where the end of the spit widens, my reverie was interrupted. A volunteer crashed out of the scrub. His arms cradled a heavily oiled merganser, its bright, unblinking golden eyes the only part of the bird not matted with black tar.

    “We might save this one,” he said. So back we went down the spit, hurrying to get the bird to an emergency washing station set up 30 kilometres away at Victoria’s SPCA. 

    I held the merganser while he drove. Oil oozed from its feathers, soaked into my jacket and dripped onto the car seat as we headed for Victoria and the rescue station. The bird gasped, fluttered a little, too weak to do anything but wait, powerless to avoid its fate, whatever it might prove. 

    The oil had begun coming ashore on Whiffin Spit and all down the southern Outer Coast of Vancouver Island days before. Now we walked the beaches trying to save as many of the oiled seabirds struggling ashore as we could — those birds that hadn’t sunk to the bottom already, encased in their small coffins of tar. 

    The oil was heavy, sticky, bunker-type crude, probably pumped out of some passing freighter’s bilge beyond the horizon, far off shore and safely distant from the consequences. By the time I was walking the spit, the Province’s environmental authorities had already pronounced the beaches clean and had moved their major efforts farther west.

    “Clean,” like “risk,” is a relative term. 

    There’s risk. And there’s risk. Jaywalking downtown at 3 a.m. carries significantly less risk than jaywalking on the freeway at rush hour. One risk might seem acceptable, the other a lot less so.

    I was reminded of this both remembering my encounter with bunker oil and its repercussions at Whiffin Spit and in having that recollection jarred out of the sediments of an old reporter’s memory banks by reports of oil seeping out of corroding fuel tanks aboard a half-century old shipwreck. 

    The wreck is off Bligh Island in Mowachaht/Muchalaht territory, about 37 kilometres west of Gold River and not far from Yuquot, where naval commanders George Vancouver, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra and the whaling chief Maquinna resolved the Nootka Crisis in 1790, averting a war between two of the day’s imperial superpowers and giving shape to what’s now British Columbia.



    The MV Schiedyk ran aground and sank in 1968. Its fuel is still surfacing 52 years later (right) 


    The oil has been surfacing from the wreck of the freighter MV Schiedyk. The ship was loaded with pulp and grain when, on January 3, 1968, it struck a ledge that opened its hull like a can opener. The crew of 40 took to the lifeboats and it sank in 66 fathoms of water, deep enough to disappear from public memory until a few weeks ago.

    The present slick is thought to be from oil seeping out of tanks made rotten by corrosion and time. It’s a small one as oil spills go and we’re assured that the Canadian Coast Guard is working with BC Spill Response and the area’s First Nations to assess the threat and try to contain it. 

    But that recollection from Whiffin Spit which bubbled up from the depths of my own memory reminded me that there’s actually no such thing as a small oil spill.

    One litre of oil contaminates about a million litres of water. The contamination is widely dispersed. A coffee mug of oil can create a slick that covers the area of a football field. One barrel of spilled oil renders the area of 300 football fields lethal to waterfowl, not to mention the seals, sea lions, whales and porpoises that have to breach the toxic film to breathe. 

    So the idea of a small spill is false, even when it’s made in comparison to larger and more devastating spills. Sure, the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe, spewing 53,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico for three months is vast in its implications. But for birds landing in the “small” slick off Bligh Island, the consequences are the same. As an 18th Century poet pointed out, long before the observation’s attribution to Joseph Stalin, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.

    Dismissing a spill as small seems like telling a pedestrian who’s been hit by a VW beetle on a quiet side street not to worry because it was a small accident compared to getting run over by an 18-wheeler on the freeway. To the person run over, the difference matters not a whit. 

    For that merganser, struggling to live in spite of its soaking in a “small” spill of oil that had been deemed cleaned-up, the consequences loomed large and permanent.

    Oil affects seabirds in many different ways. The principal threat is that it clogs their feathers and reduces buoyancy. Oiled birds must spend much more energy swimming just to stay afloat. They have less energy to spend on feeding. The natural insulating quality of their down is destroyed, exposing them to the strength-sapping cold of the North Pacific. 

    Desperate to restore their flotation, oiled birds preen frantically. Each time, they ingest a bit of oil which then slowly destroys their internal organs. Some birds, as they weaken, sink and drown. Others perish from hypothermia. Yet others starve to death as they become too feeble to feed. Some get smashed to pieces on the rocks. A few, lucky enough to make it to shore, are too weak to avoid predators. Even fewer are found by some beach-walker. They have a ghost of a chance to survive, although they most certainly then become statistics for the beancounters of ecological tragedy.

    The washing station, when we got there, was tucked away on Napier Street among the machine shops of the industrial crescents just off Burnside Road. Four makeshift pens had been thrown together from wooden frames and netting. They were covered with old blankets and warmed by heat lamps. Out back, a kid’s blue plastic swimming tank made do as a washing station.

    One pen was filled with terrified horned grebes. Other pens held loons, guillemots, murres, mergansers like the one I was carrying, and a number of birds I couldn’t identify. The tank was thrashing with murres, diving birds that look like tiny penguins, their wings cunningly adapted to “fly” through the water, each one a tiny miracle of evolution and adaptation. 

    The volunteer in charge picked a dying grebe out of the pen, its crimson eyes just starting to glaze. He expected 85 percent of the birds in the pen to die, he said, like this one, unable to recover from energy loss and organ damage from ingested oil.

    A log book told the grim story. So far, 123 birds recovered, 60 dead, 45 more expected to die. 

    And I recall with great exactness what he said next:

    “That bird’s life is as important to it as your life is important to you. That bird knows it’s dying. It feels pain and terror just like you. I wish everybody could come here and experience this. If there’s one message we have to get across it’s that life is not a bottomless pit. We just can’t keep on doing this.”


    Where the real risks lie

    But, or course, we do keep on doing it. Ahead of us, even then, lay the Prestige spill, 70 million litres; ABT Summer, 193 million litres; MV Selendang Ayu, 1.3 million litres; Deep Water Horizon, 8.4 million litres a day for three months; and so on up to the Husky platform spill off Newfoundland in 2018, right in the middle of a wintering area occupied by 40 million seabirds.

    How many birds are killed by oil in the ocean? The fact is, nobody knows. Mortalities are desperately difficult to estimate. Evidence is hard to find because much of it sinks. But one might start with the stark fact that for decades about 300,000 fatally oiled seabirds have been found each year in the waters off Newfoundland alone. 

    As I was saying, there is risk and there is risk. We tend to focus on the catastrophic spills, the really big ones with dramatic TV footage and large numbers. When we calculate risks, for example, from a completed TransMountain Pipeline expansion which could increase tanker traffic through the Gulf Islands and Juan de Fuca Strait from one ship a month to one ship a day, we model the effects of worst case spills from a wreck on Arachne Reef or Race Rocks and try to figure out the habitat that would be affected. The models cited in the pipeline application suggested up to 46 percent of the “available habitat” has a very high probability of oil contamination with marine bird habitat at greatest risk. Depending on where the accident occurred, available habitat might include the Fraser River estuary, the Gulf Islands and San Juan Islands, the beaches of Victoria and the South Island and so on. 

    An honest risk analysis, however, suggests that there is an extremely low probability of a catastrophic spill of this nature. That’s not to say the possibility doesn’t merit concern. It is to say that we shouldn’t allow concern to deflect attention to the least likely catastrophe and away from the most likely—the death by a thousand cuts posed by “small” spills.

    Federal safety experts conclude that the probability of a major accident is minuscule, some marine transport experts say the risk is close to nil.

    The far greater risk to the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound, the Gulf Islands and the South Island is a bunker fuel spill from any number of bulk carriers, container ship, passenger ferries, warships, tugboats and community fuel barges that already ply those waters in very close proximity to shorelines. 

    Some of these vessels carry 10,000 tonnes of bunker oil in their fuel tanks, equal to the amount that the pipeline applicants’ modelling for a worst-case tanker accident estimated would contaminate from 29 to 39 percent of the Strait of Georgia. 

    One federal study planning spill response reported in 2013 that more than a billion litres of petroleum already moves through coastal waters in the tanks of vessels other than barges. These vessels, in 2017, accounted for perhaps half a million sailings, almost 320,000 of them by BC and Washington State Ferries. 

     The ill-fated Queen of the North, the BC ferry that sank on the North Coast in 2006, went down with almost 250,000 litres of oil in its fuel tanks and the chronic leaking of that oil remains an environmental concern.

    The same year, a cargo carrier spilled 243,000 litres of crude into the Squamish River estuary when its starboard fuel tank was punctured on a metal piling. A year later, a logging barge moving equipment lost its deck cargo which went over the side in Robson Bight, the ecological reserve created because of its importance to killer whales which congregate there to rub on sandstone shelves along the shoreline. Among the equipment lost, a tank truck loaded with 10,000 litres of oil. 

    In 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart, an articulated barge returning from Alaska, ran aground on a reef—the second mate on watch fell asleep and a course-correcting alarm had been turned off. It released 110,000 litres of fuel and lube oil into Gale Pass (near Bella Bella), an important Heiltsuk food harvesting site.



    The Nathan E Stewart, an articulated barge that sunk in 2016 near Bella Bella


    In Victoria, where two barges ran aground off Dallas Road in 2016, there are more than 500 fuel barge movements in and out of the harbour each year. They transport an estimated maximum of 8.2 billion litres of oil and petroleum products. 

    According to the Transportation Safety Board’s report for 2019, there have been 1,059 marine accidents involving 1,228 vessels in the Pacific Region since 2009. On average, the Pacific Region experiences 46 percent of all marine accidents in Canada.

    Over the last 10 years, accidents involving barges and ferries amount to three times the number involving cargo ships or tankers. 

    As a consequence, according to Transport Canada, the southern BC coast has one of the highest probabilities of a marine spill. And the Georgia Strait Alliance warns that if all the proposed traffic expansion in the Salish Sea takes place, the risk of a spill will increase by 68 percent. Ironically, any such spill is least likely to come from a tanker and most likely to come from a fuel barge accident.

    It’s the “little” spills that often pass below the media’s radar. And it’s the chronic exposure of the environment to low and less dramatic levels of oil that we should be thinking about. 

    Media responds energetically to catastrophes and gives them exhaustive coverage. The dreary daily litany of bilge pumpouts at sea, chronic leaking tanks on sunken wrecks, accidental overflows while refuelling, “small” leaks from small collisions, the leaky outboard motors of recreational boaters and anglers, not so much.  

    The truth is that large marine tanker shipping is vastly safer than it was and is getting much safer with double hulls, sophisticated navigation systems, pilotage and tug escorts. 

    Smaller vessels, non-tanker marine traffic, already sunken vessels—that’s what we should be thinking hard about. 

    For example, there’s the ticking time bomb of ships, many of them tankers, sunk during hostilities in World War 2. When Trevor Gilbert of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority put together a global data base of leaking wrecks, he listed 8,569 of which 1,583 are oil tankers with cargo and on-board fuel of up to 20 million tonnes of oil.

    Transport Canada reported in 2013 that sunken vessels, the zombie threat to Canada’s marine environment, are estimated to be in the thousands. One of them, a US Army transport with a load of 500-pound bombs and 700 tonnes of bunker oil sank in 1946 not far from where the Queen of the North went down. When the oil began to leak, a dangerous recovery operation cost $27 million. 

    In the Strait of Georgia, four railway tank cars loaded with chlorine went to the bottom in a very deep part of Malaspina Strait when the barge carrying them capsized on February 21, 1975.

    These zombie threats, it turns out, are everywhere.   

    “They lie forgotten by time, dormant until corrosion reawakens their potential threat,” said the chilling Review of Canada’s Ship-Source Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime.

    All of a sudden that “small” spill at Bligh Island and the leaky barge at Port McNeill begin to feel like part of a much larger and more consequential but far less dramatic spill. 

    We’re all participants in this. If we shop for groceries, catch a ferry to Salt Spring, take the bus to a concert, go for an oil change, drive the dogs to the off-leash park, drive the boards and wet suits to Sombrio for a surf session. All of us are complicit. So perhaps I fully deserved the accusation I felt in the golden eyes of that small bird as it lay dying in my arms so long ago. And that’s why I remember what that volunteer at the washing station said.

    “Now it’s the birds. Next it’s you and me and my three kids. When are people going to figure that out?” 

    Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. 

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    Stephen's writing continues to move me. His stories often remind of us our comfortable lives and the raw truths that the comfort is derived from. The slow accumulation of damage to our mostly wild environment on the west coast from the fossil fuel industry is heart breaking for those who pay attention and should be a warning for those who are in charge. Wild animals, and the ecosystem they are an inextricable part of, must be protected if they are to sustain their own lives, let alone sustain humans. It is truly folly to believe we can have a rich and healthy life when a life of any kind is damaged or ended through an action of humans. Thank you again Stephen for your heart centered reminder of how fragile is the area in which we choose to live. 

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