Bill Jahelka of Western Canada Marine Response Corporation outlined the enhancements that are being put in place to deal with oil spills on the West Coast. (Warren Goulding/Citizen)

Oil spill response takes centre stage at Duncan Cowichan Chamber luncheon

“We’re here to respond to oil spills.”

Speaking to a Duncan Cowichan Chamber of Commerce luncheon gathering, Bill Jahelka was quick to make a point about a controversial subject.

“I’m neither pro or against pipelines,” the Vancouver Island Regional operations manager for Western Canada Marine Response Corporation stressed.

“We’re here to respond to oil spills.”

Jahelka’s presentation at the Chamber luncheon was timely given the recent news that the National Energy Board has once again recommended approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The NEB conceded the expansion project could have significant adverse environmental effects on the West Coast and marine wildlife but was still in the national interest.

It’s the possibility of oil spills that brings Western Canada Marine Response Corporation into the picture and Jahelka assured the Chamber gathering that his organization is well-prepared and continually upgrading its capacity.

“I’m a believer of continuous improvement. There’s lots of work to do and we just try to get better,” Jahelka said, outlining the structure that is being put in place.

WCMRC’s mandate is to respond to marine spills along the 27,000 kilometre B.C. coastline and to mitigate impacts when a spill occurs. WCMRC is an industry-funded organization with more than 2,300 members and is the only Transport Canada-certified marine response organization on Canada’s West Coast.

Last year, the WCMRC dealt with 21 spills and 40 the year before.

“Most are very minor, a boat sinking at a dock with a diesel spill, for example,” Jahelka said.

When a spill occurs, industry, communities, the provinces and federal agencies work together under the leadership of the WCMRC professionals who are located along the coast. There are response bases in Duncan, Burnaby, Nanaimo, Prince Rupert and Victoria.

WCMRC works to ensure there is a state of preparedness in place when a marine spill occurs and to mitigate the impacts on B.C.’s coast. This includes the protection of wildlife, economic and environmental sensitivities, and the safety of both responders and the public.

With the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion scheduled to begin operations in 2021, WCRMC has begun a $150 million enhancement program. These enhancements are designed to cut response times in half, double the existing federal planning standards and significantly increase response capabilities along the province’s south coast.

The enhancement will create more than 120 permanent, full-time jobs. Approximately 40 new response vessels will be added, doubling WCMRC’s current fleet.

WCMRC’s operations and equipment are funded by bulk oil cargo fees and by membership fees from shipping and oil handling companies operating along the West Coast. Any vessel larger than 400 tonnes calling on a B.C. port is required to have a membership with WCMRC.

In the event of a spill, the polluter is required to pay 100 per cent of the clean up costs. The shipping companies are required to have insurance to cover these costs.

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