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Just how effective can a spill response be off our coast?

This post is part of an ongoing series in which MLA Andrew Weaver will be sharing key information from inside the National Energy Board hearings on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline proposal. To see previous posts, please click here.

How do you actually clean up an oil spill?

And why is it that, on average, only 5-15% of oil is ever recovered from a spill?

There are a lot of factors that impact the effectiveness of clean-up efforts: Response time, size of the spill, weather conditions, number of personnel available to respond, availability of equipment, etc.

One of the biggest factors is simply the equipment itself. Oftentimes, the equipment only works under certain conditions, so I decided to explore this a bit further. I wanted to determine under what conditions the equipment works—and how often it doesn’t.

Here’s what I found:

Skimmers and boom lines are two of the most important pieces of equipment used to clean up an oil spill. Whereas boom lines are used to contain oil in an enclosed space, skimmers are used to recover spilled oil from the surface of the ocean.

As you can imagine, both booms and skimmers work best when the ocean is calm. As wave height increases, the oil spreads beyond the boom lines and mixes below the surface, making it hard to recover with skimmers.

In fact, the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC)—the organization responsible for responding to oil spills in B.C.—lays out all of this information for us.

It turns out that booms and skimmers work best when waves are less than 1m tall. As soon as waves are taller than 1m, booms and skimmers aredifficult to execute and become less effective” (p. 29). Once the wave height reaches 1.5 m, skimming and booming operations would be stopped entirely because they are so ineffective.

We sometimes have a pretty stormy coast, so I asked Kinder Morgan to identify the amount of time each year that wave height is:

  1. Less than 1m (skimmers and booms are effective)
  2. Between 1m and 1.5m (skimmers and booms are less effective)
  3. More than 1.5m (skimmers and booms are stopped entirely)

Unfortunately, in their response Kinder Morgan grouped all wave heights that are less than 1.5 m into one category, so we don’t know how often their response would be “less effective”. That said, we do know what percentage of the year spill response simply will not work due to wave heights higher than 1.5m.

It turns out that, on average, between 10% and 20% of the year WCMRC would not be able to use skimmers or booms because the waves are too high. In fact, WCMRC wouldn’t even be required to respond to an oil spill for that much of the year.

If, however, we take the data from Race Rocks—an island just outside of Victoria—it quickly rises to 40% of the year. That’s essentially three days a week, every week, when spill response would be stopped because the waves are too high.

Let me reiterate—those numbers do not include the time when spill response is less effective but still possible. Kinder Morgan still hasn’t clearly provided us with those numbers.

Now, I sincerely hope we never have a spill on our coast. But I believe strongly that we need to be prepared— just in case. What these numbers suggest is that for 10%-40% of the year we are not prepared at all.

And that’s a problem.

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