American tanker barges without Canadian pilots make dozens of trips through the Salish Sea, Johnston Strait and BC’s northern Inside Passage every year, under a waiver granted to the companies by the Pacific Pilotage Authority.
The 10,000 ton barges are making fuel deliveries from the Anacortes Refinery near Bellingham, Washington. Aviation fuel goes to the Kinder Morgan Westridge terminal in Burnaby, BC, and then by pipeline to the Vancouver airport. The barges continue up the coast to deliver gasoline and diesel to communities in BC and Alaska. Each barge carries about 10 million litres of gasoline and diesel on their journey, which occurs three to four times each month.
Tanker Exclusion Zone?
Some members of the public mistakenly believe the area is protected by the voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone (TEZ) instituted by the Canadian government in 1985, after studies of the impact of a potential oil spill off Canada’s west coast. The TEZ is intended to keep oil tankers out of the Inside Passage and 100 kilometres off the BC coast. It has been respected by the US and Canadian Coast Guards and the shipping industry for 30 years, although lately petroleum and condensate for the tar sands have been shipped across the zone from Prince Rupert to the open Pacific Ocean.
Technically, the Texas-based oil vessels are not tankers, but Articulated Tanker Barges (ATBs) where the tug is pinned into a large notch in the transom of its barge, from where it pushes, rather than tows, it through the water. The barges are under the 40,000 ton deadweight limit (the size of the Exxon Valdez spill) that the TEZ specifies.
Ingmar Lee, who lives on Denny Island near Bella Bella, BC, began checking ship traffic in his area, using the Automatic Identification System (the tracking system for marine vessels – AIS) and is concerned by the tankers carrying fuel on the Inside Passage. Lee said, “I first noticed them about three years ago, and I have been tracking them regularly over the past year as they make their way up and down this coast.” Pic Cred: Watershed Sentinel.
Captain Kevin Obermeyer of the Pacific Pilotage Authority told the Watershed Sentinel that 26 American and 30 Canadian companies had waivers which exempt them from the requirement of a Canadian pilot, including three companies that run ATBs. Obermeyer explained that the traffic carrying petroleum supplies was historical on the coast from the early logging days, and that the tug and barge crews know the local waters so well that they are the main source of recruits to be trained as pilots.
There is great concern that a spill from tankers travelling near the coast will do irreparable damage to the marine ecosystem. The original drift study of oil spills which led to the creation of the TEZ calculated that it would take tugs 18 hours to reach a tanker off Estevan Point, midway up Vancouver Island.
Meanwhile, the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), funded by shipping companies and oil handling facilities that operate along the West Coast, is certified to deal with spills up to 10,000 tons, with a response time within 72 hours. Their primary area of concern is the lower mainland and southern Vancouver Island, although they do have some equipment in Prince Rupert and run spill response training along the coast (See wcmrc.com/vessels).
From the recent experience of a spill in Vancouver, the lack of equipment nearby, and the six hour response time before booms were deployed, fears about a spill in the remote coastal areas are justified.
This article was written by Delores Broten, editor of the Watershed Sentinel and was posted Summer-2015-Vol25-N03.