VANCOUVER — Despite “polluter pay” laws in Canada, local governments and agencies are still waiting to recover costs incurred during two significant fuel spills off British Columbia’s coast.
The City of Vancouver and Vancouver Aquarium are collectively waiting on nearly $700,000 in losses related to a 2015 leak of bunker fuel, while the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bellla continues negotiating over $200,000 in repayments for its response to a tugboat that ran aground in 2016.
Transport Canada, which oversees spill response, said in a statement that under the current regime, ship owners are strictly liable for spills — up to a limit based on the size of the vessel — and all vessels must have insurance for oil pollution damages.
The government also maintains a Ship Source Oil Pollution Fund to compensate Canadians, including businesses and local governments, when costs are beyond what a ship owner covers or when the source is unknown.
In the days following the 2,700-litre fuel leak in Vancouver’s English Bay, Transport Canada claimed the bulk carrier ship the MV Marathassa was the source.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said in a statement that the Canadian Coast Guard spent more than $2.4 million in its response to the leak.
That money was repaid by the federal pollution fund after the government and vessel owner “were unable to come to an agreement in a timely manner,” the statement said.
The City of Vancouver said it spent $500,000 on staff salaries, equipment costs and third-party groups to help in the cleanup.
Spokesman Jag Sandhu said the city asked for compensation from the ship’s owner but has since filed a claim with the federal pollution fund.
Peter Ross, a scientist with the Vancouver Aquarium, said roughly $180,000 was spent on environmental testing when little information was being released immediately after the fuel spill.
The aquarium draws water from English Bay, Ross said, and staff were concerned that the fuel posed a risk to its wildlife.
“We basically acknowledged it was going to be expensive but it was really an exceptional circumstance where we couldn’t really worry about the money at that point, we had to know whether our collection was at risk,” he said.
Ross said the tests found fuel reached beaches in Porty Moody, roughly 12 kilometres away, and mussels collected in English Bay had taken up oil.
Ross said the aquarium was negotiating compensation with the owners of the Marathassa and had been offered about 20 cents for every dollar spent, which he called unacceptable.
“These are not damages we’re inventing out of emotional trauma or anything, these are damages associated with direct costs, direct financial outlay and liability associated with the incident,” he said.
Lawyer Peter Swanson, who is representing the vessel, declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations, which he said are confidential.
Alassia NewShips Management Inc., the operator of the Marathassa, also declined to comment.
The Marathassa is facing 10 environment-related charges in B.C. provincial court, including allegations it violated the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environment Protection Act. Hearings are scheduled through to May.
Alassia faces similar charges, but a B.C. Court of Appeal decision earlier this year determined the Greek company has not been properly served a summons, preventing allegations from going ahead.
In Bella Bella, a community of 1,600 people along B.C.’s central coast, the Heiltsuk Nation said it’s still working to recover $150,000 paid out in its response to the spill of 107,000 litres of diesel and 2,240 litres of lubricants from the Nathan E. Stewart in Oct. 2016.
Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett said $100,000 went to resources such as offices, boats and staff while $50,000 went to monitoring and testing at the site.
Slett said the nation was communicating with vessel owners Kirby Offshore Marine, based in Houston, but nothing had been settled.
Kirby did not respond to requests for comment.
Slett said the community continues to feel the effects of the spill, its commercial clam fishery remains closed and they are concerned about other affected species.
“We’re doing some testing with the purpose of understanding the health of the resources and the ecosystem and the safety of consuming the resources,” she said, adding the ocean is considered the nation’s “breadbasket.”
Slett said the Heiltsuk is gathering materials for a possible legal claim against the company.
“We didn’t expect it would take this long and we didn’t expect that there would be issues with them paying for their own costs for a spill they were responsible for in Heiltsuk territory,” she said.
Vancouver lawyer Christopher Giaschi, who specializes in maritime and transportation law, said the two cases appear to be exceptional and the legal framework is effective, with most claims involving small spills resolved within a year.
Transport Canada said in a statement the new Oceans Protection Plan will strengthen the current system by allowing unlimited compensation from the federal pollution fund, amending the tax paid by industry to increase the fund when depleted, and speed up access to that money for responders and communities that need it.
But Ross said the aquarium’s experience has been “demoralizing” and he hopes the incident is not reflective of the shipping industry.
“What does it say about any tanker coming in and out of Vancouver?” he said. “What does it say when we have a 3,000-litre spill and the responsible party fights tooth and nail and then ends up offering one quarter of what the damages are? I don’t know. It’s absolutely beyond me.”