Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Whale risks rise in Robson Bight

Whale risks rise in Robson Bight

Times Colonist
Monday, April 07, 2008

Governments' poor performance in dealing with a truck full of diesel fuel on the bottom of Robson Bight raises concerns about proposals for more tanker traffic and offshore oil and gas development.

The federal and provincial governments have expressed support for both, although the Harper government has not lifted the offshore drilling moratorium in place since the early 1970s. Both governments promise tough environmental controls as part of any change.

Given their response since a barge sank last August in the Robson Bight ecological reserve off the Island's east coast, it's hard to take the promises seriously.

The barge's cargo included logging equipment and vehicles -- one a fuel truck holding 10,000 litres of diesel. There was immediate concern about the threat to northern killer whales and other marine life.

But agencies charged with protecting the coast responded slowly and ineffectually. Officials first said the barge sank outside the reserve, which was created because of the need to protect the endangered killer whales. That proved to be false.

Biologists and environmentalists urged immediate inspection of the wreckage to assess the damage and the risk of spills. The coast guard said that was unnecessary. The diesel tanker would have been crushed by the pressure and the oil released, it said. Using a submersible to inspect the wreckage could cost $300,000, the coast guard said.

After a two-month delay, frustrated whale-watching and environmental groups announced they would pay to have a submersible inspect the wreckage. That prompted the governments to agree to conduct an inspection -- which turned out to cost far less than the coast guard had claimed.

Almost six months after the sinking, the governments revealed that the photos showed the wreckage was sitting intact on the bottom. The diesel tanker was full of fuel. The hazard was real. That was seven weeks ago. The governments are still trying to figure out whether the wreckage can be raised, with no timeline for a decision.

Paul Spong of OrcaLab, a nearby research station, says the delay is putting the killer whales at risk. They will return for the summer in June. The diesel truck, which could begin leaking at any time, is a time bomb.

The governments might ultimately decide the risks of raising the wreckage are too great. But their sluggish, inept performance so far has undermined their credibility.

And it has certainly raised doubts about their ability to deliver the promised protection should offshore gas exploration or greater tanker traffic go ahead


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