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Water Today Title July 7, 2022

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Updated 2017/4/11


By Ronan O'Doherty

A report issued by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) this past week, is highlighting the lack of preparedness for a major oil spill in Canada's Arctic region.

The all-encompassing report targets the Beaufort Region in the Arctic's West and Nunavut in the East.

With shipping through the Arctic increasing significantly each year and extreme weather events becoming more common thanks to climate change, it is becoming far more likely an accident with catastrophic consequences will unfold.

Adam Dumbrille, Senior Specialist for Sustainable Shipping at WWF, has done a lot of work with Northern communities. "When you go into a community and you talk about their concerns, there are many issues related to shipping," Dumbrille said, "Oil spills and oil pollution are within the first five of these issues."

While, those South of the Arctic Circle may covet clean water sources for drinking and recreation, it's even more important for the communities in the North that the ocean remains pristine.

"Mainly because people in the North depend on the sea for their food," Dumbrille said, "It's their grocery store and if anything happens, their food security is threatened."

Dumbrille said that even though the possibility for a spill isn't has high as it might be in higher trafficked areas, the consequences if one happens are enormous or even catastrophic.

The equipment to properly respond to a spill just isn't there right now; it is further south in the US, Canada and the UK. So, if there was a spill, it would take days to arrive.

Timing of the report was quite interesting with an incident in Picton Bay on Lake Ontario causing a fair amount of local press over 30L of fuel leaking from some jerry cans aboard a partially submerged barge.

While the equipment necessary to clean an oil spill of up to 150t would take about six hours to arrive South of 60 degrees latitude, the estimated response time North of 60 is around 48 hours. For oil spills of up to 1,000t, the response standard South of 60 is 12 hours, however for those in the North, the estimated time is one week.

"With each hour that goes by, the oil entrains in the water column and emulsifies on the surface," Dumbrille said, "Whales, birds and fish all come in contact and there are high rates of mortality, which would have a direct impact on people trying to feed their families."

Ships that travel North of 60 also tend to use heavy fuel oil (HFO) that is typically far more difficult to clean. "It's known as bunker fuel," Dumbrille said," It's a viscous, heavy fuel and when it gets spilled it gets thick and frothy on the surface."

The usual methods for clean-up include mechanical, using a containment boon; burning, where the surface is lit to burn off the oil; and dispersants, which drive oil into the water column.

According to Dumbrille, all three of these methods aren't particularly effective with HFO. As such, he believes it's of great importance that ships are switched off of HFO altogether.

He would also like to see planners engaging local communities in developing shipping routes that avoid the most ecologically sensitive areas, so if there is a spill it occurs in areas that are less susceptible to great harm.

The federal government is trying to close the gaps. Last November it introduced the Ocean Protection Plan (OPP).

The $1.5 billion plan is a joint venture between Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

It purports to "improve marine safety and responsible shipping, protect Canada's marine environment, and offer new possibilities for Indigenous and coastal communities."

Dumbrille, referred to the plan as a road map, going so far as to say it's a good road map.

"It's a good vision for how to increase search and rescue and improve charting in the arctic," he said.

It outlines how they plan to involve indigenous and Northern communities to engage in these issues He is interested in seeing what happens past the planning phase.

"Now we’re looking for funding and implementation," he said," We need to do the tough work and develop these plans in communities," adding," So now’s the time for action and that’s what we’re looking for."

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