I expect there will be mixed reaction to yesterday’s federal announcement of a new safety regime for oil tankers sailing Canadian waters.
It won’t be enough for most people opposing development or expansion of oil activity off our coast. It might be enough for anyone on the fence, though, and it will undoubtedly be enough to encourage those who want to build pipelines and boost oil exports to renew their campaigns with fresh enthusiasm. (Yes, I’m lookin’ at you, Premier “Five Conditions Including A World-Class Oil Response“.)
My own reaction? Nice start, and better than what we have now.
But none of it — none of it — is going to mean anything if the new regulations are enforced with the same half-hearted effort as most of our current maritime regs. Or if as many exemptions to them are granted. Or if enforcement of them is as underfunded. Or if they end up being as watered down under pressure from industry.
I’m still busy reading the proposed new regulatory regime that was tabled along with yesterday’s announcement.
Some of the plan looks good to me, off the top — the use of two pilots on tankers, for example, presuming that we continue to train them up and maintain a good supply of qualified folks. And the appointment of Gordon Houston to chair the safety review panel is probably as good as it is going to get, all things considered. Houston is at least a mariner, and ran a positively open and upfront port in Vancouver when he was CEO, compared to the administrations that followed him.
Otherwise, the plan calls for increased tanker inspections, more aerial surveillance of ships (good god, how many times can we re-announce that one?), a review of pilotage and tug-escort requirements, more research on non-conventional petroleum products like diluted bitumen, more ports, starting with Kitimat, designated for traffic-control measures, stronger requirements for pollution prevention and response at oil-handling facilities, new offences for contraventions of the act and greater pollution penalties.
But back to my point: I do have an important thought about tanker safety that is going undebated as this whole issue is dissected and chewed over.
It’s an argument that stuck with me through years spent covering maritime issues on this coast as a journalist, and it’s an argument I make often to environmentalists who use maritime issues as part of their platform opposing oil development, movement and export.
It goes something like this:
I get the climate change argument, I get the overall carbon issue, I get the pipeline safety concerns. I understand the economic debate about using, or not using, resource revenue to fund other programs we depend on, and I’ve spent hours looking at the national arguments for a cross-Canada pipeline.
When all that is said and done, and the focus finally turns to the specific issue of the safety challenges posed by a massive boost in the number of tankers sailing our coast — and in particular, in and out of Kitimat, and those challenging stretches of water — then I start asking a question that no one seems to want to talk about.
My question is always about making the maritime traffic we have now as safe as possible.
I argue, and I believe, that we should take some small sliver of the considerable time, money and energy that is put into fighting tanker traffic and redirect it to fight against the ongoing knee-capping of Canada’s present regulatory regime and enforcement and investigation system.
Fight your other fight about the future, but pay a little attention to the reality in front of you now, that’s what I mean.
The point? If this really is about the safety of the environment, then surely the environment matters now.
And surely the lack of, oh, what’s the word … vigour with which Canada’s present maritime regulations are enforced is something that should be addressed.
Because if it was addressed, then our waters, and the people and goods who work and travel on those tugs, ferries, freighters, cruiseships and fish boats would be safer now. And that would be a good thing.
And if we took the position now that regulations do matter, and that sufficient workers will always be kept in place to enforce them, and that we will exercise massive political will to stare down and punish anyone trying to weaken them or avoid complying, then we could move forward with a discussion of new tanker safety regulations with some sense that there was … how to put it … a point to the discussion.
Here are a couple of examples of what I mean.
One involves the horrible death of an officer killed in the port of Vancouver several years ago when a berthing line on his ship snapped, hit him and flipped him across the deck. The issue is known as the “human factor”, one of the deadliest and most common causes of accidents at sea. Investigators concluded that the death was an unfortunate accident and the man had simply made a bad decision about where to stand as the ship was being “walked” forward so the cargo could be dumped into another hold. They said he stood looking over a curved bow that prevented him from seeing the danger of a line that could snap. I covered the case. I talked to other inspectors who told me that the “rest books” on the ship weren’t up to date. (Those are the logs that record how many hours crew and officers have worked, because there are international regulations about that — the same way we keep our roads safe by limiting the hours that commercial truckers can drive at one time.) I don’t know if the man who was killed had been up too long and simply lost that basic, built-in seafarer’s sense that keeps them out of “the bight,” the dangerous area where something unforseen might hurt them. But I do know that he would have been up very long hours supervising the loading that was being done. And I know the books weren’t up to date, although they are required to be. And I know that fatigue at sea is an enormous problem in accidents. (The fight against fatigue was once proudly led, at the IMO, by Canada’s own Bill O’Neil. It’s still a critical issue; an international assault on fatigue at sea is planned for this year.) Those troubling, potentially connectable dots have weighed on my mind since the morning I got the call about the death. Because if we can’t enforce something as straightforward as hours of work, how do we keep operations safe?
Don’t like the fact that the Queen of the North sank in Wright Sound with 220,000 litres of diesel on board in a spot that made salvage virtually impossible? Well, that grounding would almost without question have been prevented if a third crew member had been on the bridge at the time that the two crew present were distracted by a personal conversation. Federal regulations in fact required a third person — but BC Ferries waged a long, aggressive argument against the requirement and sailed routinely without meeting it. I know; I spent months covering that issue, and I went through the entire record of private exchanges between the company and Transport Canada. (The issue is also covered in the Transportation Safety Board’s report on the sinking; the company, as the TSB notes, now sails that route with three crew on the bridge at all times.) So how about we start actually enforcing rules on things like manning? Because having “sufficient and efficient” crew, as they say, makes a difference to safety at sea.
Finally, there’s the mother of all oily maritime disasters: the grounding of the Exxon Valdez. Nobody wants another Exxon Valdez. You only have to mention the name to shut down any debate. But if you read the official investigation report into the accident and subsequent spill (and you should, it’s instructive), you’ll see how failing to enforce safe crewing and operations can be deadly.
Here’s what the National Transportation Safety Board said about the cause of the accident that spewed 258,000 barrels of oil when eight cargo tanks ruptured, caused “catastrophic damage to the environment” and $25 million in damage to the vessel, and cost $3.4 million in lost cargo and $1.85 billion for cleanup during 1989 alone:
“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the grounding of the Exxon Valdez was the failure of the third mate to properly maneuver the vessel because of fatigue and excessive workload; the failure of the master to provide a proper navigation watch because of impairment from alcohol; the failure of Exxon Shipping Company to provide a fit master and a rested and sufficient crew for the Exxon Valdez; the lack of an effective Vessel Traffic Service because of inadequate equipment and manning levels, inadequate personnel training, and deficient management oversight; and the lack of effective pilotage services.”
What else is there to say?
It isn’t an argument for shutting down our coast.
That’s one reason we have governments — to create and enforce regulations that make commercial operations as safe as humanly possible.
Canada is a maritime nation. We’re not going to stop trading any time soon. We’d be a sorrier place without trade.
Whether or not the pipelines are built, whether or not tanker traffic increases — hell, whether or not the existing commercial and recreational marine traffic ever increases — we can do a lot more to make our waters, our workers and our goods safe.
And there’s a mighty win to be had if even a fraction of the effort that’s going into this battle is redirected to joining hands on a second, winnable front: the battle to make regulations mean something.