The first image of the spill I saw was this one, when I turned my phone on as I do every morning to check what people are talking about on Twitter. It’s not a great habit, but it’s an unfortunate requirement of my job. I saw the jagged, rainbow-colored ribbons emanating from a large freighter, indicating the release of some kind of oily substance in the water. It was taken from the air by News 1130 Traffic Reporter Chad Dey. It’s shocking, and it made me sad for the many living creatures who live on and near the water of Burrard Inlet. And then, as stories like this often do, it made me curious.
How long had it been leaking? Who knew about it? When did they know about it? Why isn’t the tanker surrounded by a large boom to keep all that goop from spreading? Is it going to mess up my next trip to the beach with my son?
The picture was obviously taken after the sun came up… and today we learned the leak was first spotted at around 5pm yesterday. City Manager Penny Ballem admitted the city didn’t even learn about the spill until about 13 hours later, at 6 am today. Turns out, there is no requirement for anyone to notify the city, because our local waters fall under federal jurisdiction. And so they didn’t until this morning. This did not sit well with the City of Vancouver and I suspect no one who cares about our beaches and waterways will be thrilled with this realization either. You can see Penny Ballem’s comments in our online coverage here.
There is still a lot we don’t know about the spill, the response, and what a tonne of suspected bunker fuel oil will do to our marine environment in the short term. In the long term, we know the physical impact will be essentially nil. “The solution to pollution is dilution” is an often-used phrase and in this case it’s absolutely true. It’s not a pleasant visual, but Burrard Inlet has been described as nature’s biggest toilet bowl. Twice a day it gets flushed out by the tide and over time, the physical impact of this “minor” spill will disappear. It’s a simple fact, and one that should be acknowledged.
But the psychological impact is something else entirely.
The imagery of a giant oil slick floating in English Bay and boat hulls and beaches blackened by sticky grime is not going to be washed away with the tide. There are some very rich oil companies trying to convince the millions of residents here that pipeline capacity should be doubled. That tanker traffic should increase six-fold to accommodate it. That we will have a “world class” marine response if there is ever a spill or leak.
Are you convinced? I know I’m not.
However, as disgusting and dirty and troubling as this spill is, it’s not an environmental disaster. Media should be careful about how we characterize it. But it is most certainly a PR disaster for anyone who thinks it’s going to be easy, or even possible, to convince our nature-loving, wave-hugging coastal population that they’ve got all the bases covered when it comes to the risk of a significant, damaging oil spill.
Today’s event has lead to a great many questions. The Global BC News Team is working on getting the answers. Every new development is being reported online and during our broadcasts on Global BC and on our 24-hour cable channel BC1. If this story matters at all to you, I suggest you tune in!