Salvage delays – June 10th 2008

In mid May, after months of delay, British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment finally issued a Request for Proposals to salvage the diesel fuel tanker that has been lying at the bottom of Robson Bight since last August’s tragic barge accident.  Several proposals were received by the June 4th closing date, and are now being evaluated with assistance from an ‘outside’ consultant. It will be several more weeks before a contract is signed.  Sadly, this means there is no chance that the tanker will be removed before the orcas return for their annual “season” in the Johnstone Strait area.  It should be considered too risky to remove the tanker while orcas are nearby.  And, as no one knows how long it will take for the tanker shell to corrode through and release its deadly cargo, the orcas are now facing a summer of peril.

In the aftermath of the accident, fully 25% of the Northern Resident orca community was exposed to toxic diesel fumes.  The health consequences of this exposure are potentially very serious. Though some of the exposed groups have been sighted during the past few months & appear intact, the most heavily exposed group, the A30 family, has not been seen at all.  It has been common for the A30s to be sighted in northern B.C. waters by now, so their absence is a worry.  However, the deviation from expected behaviour does not mean the A30s are in trouble.  We hope the concerns are in our minds and not their bodies, but we are anxiously awaiting the first sighting of this important and favourite orca family.

None of this delay and concern was necessary.  The government has powers that enable it to take urgent actions when needed, and can issue contracts by Direct Award.  Doing this avoids cumbersome delays built into the competitive bidding process, and facilitates getting jobs done that must be done in the public interest. Given the dire urgency of the situation in Robson Bight, and the clear public interest involved, it was obvious that a Direct Award of the salvage contract was not only appropriate, but necessary.  Unfortunately, despite urging from North Island MLA Claire Trevena and non-government groups, BC’s Environment Minister Barry Penner could not be convinced.  The upshot is the situation that we, and the orcas, are now facing.

At this point, the clear priority is for steps to be taken to protect the orcas, and the sensitive ecology of Robson Bight, from a potential release of diesel from the tanker before it can be removed.  This means oil spill cleanup equipment needs to put in place, with a trained crew nearby and on standby.  We are left with the hope that governments are able to put these essential contingency plans in place, in time.  Given the slow pace at which governments have acted so far, it is very difficult to be optimistic.

An anxious summer lies ahead.

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