Letters to the Editor

Oil spill clean-up costs overblown

A letter writer takes issue with some technical details in a Black Press series about oil tankers. - Leader file photo
A letter writer takes issue with some technical details in a Black Press series about oil tankers.
— image credit: Leader file photo

I commend the Black Press team on the excellent and largely accurate three-part series Oil & Water regarding the potential increase in crude oil tankers in Vancouver harbour.

Unfortunately, the second part examining the effects of a spill contained numerous unchallenged errors.

Firstly, Rex Weyler’s claim that bitumen hitting the water separates into gases and creates a toxic cloud is sheer fiction.  If he meant diluted bitumen (“dilbit”), it is still a misleading statement, in my opinion. Some of the light diluent will evaporate, but it is harmful only if people stay in the area downwind for some time.

Over a few days, the fumes dissipate. Like table salt, which is toxic above certain limits, it’s all about the dose.

As to the threat of toluene and benzene, their concentration in dilbit is less than one per cent, or one-30th of that in the gasoline you pour into your lawn mower.

The oil sinks to the bottom, Weyler claims. Some heavy crudes such as Mexican Maya may sink to the bottom of a fresh-water body, but typical Canadian bitumen should not in either fresh water (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conclusion) or especially in our denser salt water.

However, the final result depends on the crudes shipped, and a turbulent fresh water river could cause such problems.

Mr. Weyler says he based his $40 -billion number for an oil spill clean-up “here” by comparing our situation to somebody’s estimated $50-billion clean-up cost for the BP offshore oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. He might as well compare it to the cost of a space shuttle flight; it’s apples and oranges.

First, there have been serious blowouts on oil platforms; in a century of tankers in B.C. waters there has never been a major spill, even in the half century before radar, electronic depth finders, GPS, tethered tugs, double hulls and coastal pilots on our tankers.

Second, a double-hulled Aframax tanker moving at five knots with tethered tugs in Vancouver Harbour has the safety feature of 10-14 individual tanks; even if the total tanker load were leaked (an impossibility in my view), it would be 12 per cent of the BP blowout of five million barrels.

Third, the BP leak was 5,000 feet deep, and unlike a tanker, had an unknown ultimate volume of oil escaping at high pressure and could only be inspected by remote submarines.

Fourth, the Gulf spill continued for over three months; oil is not left pouring out of a grounded tanker in Vancouver’s harbour for months.

Even Exxon Valdez, a tanker carrying twice the load of our Aframax tankers, which hit a reef at 18 knots and ruptured eight of 11 tanks, cost “only” $4.3 billion for clean-up and compensation (excluding punitive damages) in an extremely cold and remote area with no initial clean-up capability.

Colleen Doucette of The Oiled Wildlife Society of B.C. claims there are no laws forcing oil spillers to respond to oiled wildlife. This is a half truth. The Environment Canada website for the 1990 “National Policy on Oiled Birds” allows the Canadian Wildlife Service to take over oiled bird operations if the polluter is not doing an adequate job, charge them the costs of clean-up, investigate the incident, and take legal action.

Lastly, the unidentified person who commented that the port has handled oil tanker traffic for more than 50 years is half right. It’s been nearly a century since Imperial Oil opened Ioco Refinery in about 1915.


John Hunter,

North Vancouver

Semi-retired chemical engineer

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