Report finds deficient communication with First Nations during hazardous spills | Ha-Shilth-Sa Newspaper

Report finds deficient communication with First Nations during hazardous spills

Victoria, BC

B.C.’s auditor general is pointing to shortcomings in how the province responds to hazardous spills – including cases where local First Nations were not informed of harmful incidents in their territories.

Although high-risk spills were assessed, monitored and referred to the province’s recovery staff, Auditor General Michael Pickup found that, overall, B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change “had not effectively managed hazardous spills”.

Released on Feb. 27, the auditor general’s report notes deficiencies in enforcing compliance with regulations, and that the ministry doesn’t have a plan to respond to a major spill. Covering a period from Nov. 23, 2020 to June 13, 2023, the report cites more than 4,000 hazardous spills annually, with as much as 5,306 reported over the 2021/22 fiscal year. Incidents usually involved gasoline, diesel and heating fuel, but can entail any substance that could harm the environment.

“Deficiencies were found in provincial planning, compliance and enforcement, and cost recovery,” said Pickup during a press conference when the report was released.

In its response, the Ministry of Environment accepted the report, acknowledging that improvements are needed. It noted that a new environmental management action plan is set to be introduced this year.

That plan will be tasked to find ways to better engage with the over 200 First Nations in British Columbia. In three of the 12 high-risk incidents assessed by the report, provincial response staff didn’t follow procedures to notify the appropriate First Nations.

“In one incident, First Nations weren’t notified when they should have been,” stated Pickup’s report. “In another incident, the response officer made one attempt to notify the seven First Nations affected, but only made the required second attempt for two of the seven.”

In these cases, municipal governments were notified of the hazardous spills, but not the local First Nations. In response to another spill, officers notified the First Nations Health Authority, which said it would contact the affected Indigenous communities. But this goes against the province’s response procedures that require First Nations to be contacted directly.

“Operational guidance for engaging with First Nations was limited to larger incidents that required the involvement of other jurisdictions,” stated the report.

The document points to challenges in working with multiple governments and jurisdictions, which was an issue facing responders to the Zim Kingston marine container spill, an event that the report identifies as among the “high risk” incidents.

On Oct. 21, 2021 the vessel encountered stormy weather while entering the Juan de Fuca Strait, resulting in 109 40-foot shipping containers falling overboard. Just four containers were recovered after they washed up on west Vancouver Island in the days following, while fridges, sofas, clothing, toys, industrials parts and various other items collected on the coast over the next few weeks. Commercial goods were found on beaches and coastlines from Tofino to Haida Gwaii, as response agencies searched in vain for hazardous materials that were identified in a few of the lost containers.

The next year the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans found that the Zim Kingston still revealed how ill-prepared Canada is to respond to marine cargo incidents, while finding that “coastal communities are bearing the brunt of clean up efforts.” The committee determined that although the Canadian Coast Guard and the province kept coastal communities well informed of how the recovery effort was progressing, communication among those who responded was poorly coordinated.

The auditor general’s recent report recommends that the Ministry of Environment implement a process to ensure that First Nations are notified of a hazardous spill in their territory. The document noted that an automated notification system was planned to engage with 14 coastal First Nations in B.C., although this wasn’t yet being used when the audit was conducted.

This year elevates the urgency for a better coordinated coastal response with the expected completion of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline. The project will increase the daily capacity of the pipeline from central Alberta to the Vancouver area from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels of petroleum a day. This is expected to increase the number of tankers leaving the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby from five to 34 vessels a month, destined to follow a route past southern Vancouver Island and the territorial waters of several Nuu-chah-nulth nations.

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