Experts Call Toxic Spill in Vancouver a 'Warning' Against Fossil Fuel Projects

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Experts Call Toxic Spill in Vancouver a 'Warning' Against Fossil Fuel Projects

'This is a glimpse of the future. If we can't handle a small bunkering spill, how are we going to deal with a major tanker?'

A cargo ship arrives in Vancouver's English Bay, the site of a toxic fuel spill Wednesday which is still being cleaned up. (Photo: Kent Lins/flickr/cc)

In the wake of a toxic fuel spill in Vancouver's English Bay this week, criticism of the emergency response and questions over the potential impacts of a proposed tar sands pipeline expansion through the area came from climate and shipping experts alike.

Jessica Wilson, head of Greenpeace Canada's Arctic campaign, said on Thursday that the spill should serve as a warning against fossil fuel development in the area.

"Any oil spill is a disaster for marine life and for all those who depend on a healthy ecosystem," Wilson said. "While we don’t know how big this toxic spill is and the damage is still being tallied, we do know it pales in comparison with what could happen if new tar sands pipelines were built to the [British Columbia] coast or if Shell's Arctic drilling plans were to proceed."

Meanwhile, CBC News spoke with international shipping expert Joe Spears, who slammed the emergency response to the spill and said the disaster shows British Columbia's waters are not ready for increased oil tanker traffic.

Energy company Kinder Morgan has proposed building a second TransMountain pipeline to carry oil to the English Bay's Burrard inlet, where the spill began, which critics say would increase tanker traffic through B.C. waters.

"We've got to do better," Spears told CBC News. "This is a glimpse of the future. If we can't handle a small bunkering spill, how are we going to deal with a major tanker?"

More than two tons of fuel oil seeped into the English Bay on Wednesday, rendering Vancouver's beaches toxic no-go zones as a muddled cleanup effort slowly got underway. In subsequent days, several sea birds were also recovered from the area, covered in oil and unlikely to survive, according to the Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Pollution Research Program director Dr. Peter Ross.

Oil that does not get cleaned up or evaporate puts a variety of wildlife at risk, including harbor seals, otters, fish, crabs, and crows, Ross told Metro News.

"Anything that breathes air around the ocean surface is potentially going to be exposed to some noxious gases," Ross said. "Even if it’s a modest spill, there are a lot of different types of animals that can be impacted."

Spencer Chandra Herbert, a Vancouver-West End legislator who serves as the Official Opposition's Environment Critic, told CBC on Thursday that citizens were unaware of the dangers posed by the spill. "I think it's a huge wake-up call," he said.

In the wake of the incident, the Raincoast Conservation Federation, a Canadian research and climate activism group, tweeted portions of its recent report (pdf) on the risks of pipelines to marine life, the toxic components of crude oil, and the ineffectiveness of spill cleanup operations to warn of the dangers posed by expanding fossil fuel development in the area.

Environmental activist Ben West said on Thursday, "This is a scary reminder of the potential nightmare scenario of what could happen if there's increased tanker traffic along our coast.... Kinder Morgan's proposed pipeline and tanker project would see an increase from the current 80 tankers a year to over 400 tankers a year carrying primarily tar sands bitumen which is more likely to sink in the marine environment potentially causing significant harm."

Greenpeace's Wilson added, "This spill occurred in sheltered waters and with good weather  conditions. Proposed pipelines would draw hundreds of oil supertankers through English Bay each year—often through storms and high seas. Arctic drilling would open the coast to a whole new range of dangers.

"This spill is yet another reason why we need our premiers and federal leaders to act on climate and say no to proposed tar sands pipelines and Arctic drilling if we want to prevent even more disasters to B.C.'s coast."

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