Saturday, April 08, 2006

Eye in the Sky Misses the Boat At Height of Queen of the North Oil Spill

In an article written by Laura Levin and appearing in the April 7 edition of the Esquimalt News, the rather astonishing claim is made that because of bureaucratic bungling, a Government of Canada airplane decked with sophisticated equipment to detect oil slicks from the air was not deployed during the most critical period following the recent Queen of the North oil spill.

Environment Canada owns a DC3 equipped with a raft of high-tech equipment designed to detect marine oil spills from the air. The plane and its crew are said to have left Ottawa March 22, the same day the ferry sank. That's quite a quick initial response, although it took an incredible three days for the plane to reach Vancouver Island. For some reason, the plane only flew five hours each day. At first blush, it seems like a better idea would have been to put the plane on a CN freight train to Prince Rupert. And you think I'm kidding!

Once on Vancouver island, one might have expected the DC3 to reach Gil Island, site of the ferry disaster, or perhaps Prince Rupert, in another day or so. Think again, partner! It seems that because the contract of the operator, who is hired to fly and maintain the plane, was set to expire at the end of the fiscal year, March 31, the aircraft ended up sitting on a runway at Victoria International Airport for several days at least, until a one month extension was finally granted. It is unclear from the newspaper article whether the plane eventually did get deployed to the site of the incident, and whether it's gear did end up getting used. In this context, it is interesting to note that, as reported in yesterday's blog, as recently as two days ago a float plane observed sheens of oil still present in the general vicinity of the wreck.

Levin writes that the plane's "...crew stay(ed) in Sidney hotels during some of the most critical moments of the cleanup effort". Bryan Healey, the contractor operating the plane for Environment Canada's Environmental Technology Centre in Nepean, Ontario, is quoted in the article as saying that "The whole exercise could have been enhanced if they (had) used the airplane to map the oil and tell the people on the ground where it is". But perhaps the best quote of all comes from Gitga'at First Nation Chief Bob Hill:

"If there is high-tech equipment that could have been used, this government has the responsibility to do what is in their power to guage (sic) the impact of a spill of any kind. The cleanup has been 50 percent - the bare minimum. The over-flight of high technology equipment should have happened and should continue to happen for a short time - why else would the government invest in that type of equipment if it's not utilised?"

You said it, Bob! The first few days after a spill occurs are generally the most critical in a spill response effort. There is a brief window of opportunity that you don't want to miss. You want to be able to detect and track the oil as soon as possible, before it spreads. The sophisticated sensors on board the DC3 allow technicians to detect oil that the naked eye misses, or confuses for something else. Once a slick is identified from the air, spill trajectory analysis follows. A timely and efficient response effort depends on coordinated and synchronised action between the plane, vessels on the water and shoreline cleanup crews. If all these factors are present, then the containment and recovery operation can, in theory at least, stand a fighting chance of succeeding. Unfortunately, in the case of the Queen of the North spill, in the absence of the DC3 on scene, they missed the boat, to choose a rather appropriate metaphor.

To be fair, the authorities were lucky that the spill involved, for the most part, it seems, light diesel, fifty percent of which evaporates within the first 24 hours. Diesel fuel is, however, quite toxic: it turns out that it is the vapours that tend to pose the greatest threat to wildlife in the vicinity of a diesel spill. To date, there does not seem to be any evidence that vapours are present, let alone having a deleterious effect, off of Gil Island. Thus, so far at least, environmental damage appears to have been relatively minimal. What on earth would have happened if the spill had involved large amounts of thick black crude, and it took the remote sensing plane five days to arrive on scene?; one shudders to think!

Still, because the diesel sheen originating from the Queen of the North is invisible from the water, but detectable from the air, and since a float plane apparently spotted diesel sheens just two days ago, perhaps the DC3 should be up there now, doggedly going aboout its business. There would seem to be an obvious need for this kind of operation at the present time, since Hermann Meuter of Cetacealab reports that the killer whales have started to return, and more than 50 Pacific white-sided dolphins were spotted in the vicinity of the spill as recently as yesterday morning.


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