Gaps in oil spill safety and emergency response to be addressed in coming months

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VANCOUVER - British Columbia's environment minister says there's still work to be done to fill key gaps in the province's emergency-response plan before the government allows oil and other hazardous materials to cross the province.

But Environment Minister Terry Lake said the government can't just snap its fingers and create a world-class plan, as he wrapped up a three-day symposium on land-based spill prevention and response in Vancouver on Wednesday.

"You have to develop it and that means understanding what the regime is like now, and what steps you need to take to bring it up to world-leading standards," he said.

The symposium was attended by emergency-response experts from Canada and the United States, government officials, environmental groups, and business and First Nations leaders.

Lake said the B.C. government has commissioned its own study to assess the marine environment and determine the gaps that currently exist in the province's emergency-response plan.

Emergency responders attending the symposium made it clear the province will need to improve its scientific, cultural and geographic data.

"There was a lack of scientific data on the behaviour of heavy oil, particularly in a cold marine environment — Environment Canada is doing more research ... I do think there's still a question around that, that needs to be answered more fully," Lake said.

"We will share that information with the federal government and we're very pleased that they are, we think, taking positive steps."

A working group will meet in the coming months, Lake said, to establish "risk-based" framework for new legislation on safety and the transport of hazardous materials.

The framework will also include measures dealing with accountability and consequences for infractions.

Comprised of First Nations, environmental organizations, government and industry leaders, the group will develop recommendations for B.C.'s own land-based spill response, said Lake.

Changes to the legislation, however, could take as long as a year.

"These recommendations will be shared publicly, and we will be consulting broadly before moving forward with specific changes," he said. "I want to assure you there will be no unilateral decisions."

Carleen Thomas, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, attended the symposium and said she was "cautiously optimistic" about the new working committee.

She said she was pleased with the dialogue and the inclusion of First Nations groups but thinks there's significant work to be completed before any major developments occur in B.C.

"This type of transportation has been going on for a long time, but I think the concern is ... that there's going to be more traffic, we're not exactly entirely sure of the composition of the oil that will be transported — so there are a whole lot of questions," she said.

The B.C. government has outlined five conditions that must be in place for one of the proposed projects — the Northern Gateway pipeline — to go forward, and among them are a "world-class" oil spill response plan, collaboration with First Nations' groups, and a "fair share" of revenues.

The federal government has already earmarked $120 million to beef up its own oil-tanker safety standards and procedures in the event of a marine-based spill.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver recently announced new fines for polluters and mandatory emergency-response plans for oil terminal operators, in an attempt to rally support and confidence for a number of controversial projects that would increase oil exports from B.C. and add $30- to $70-million daily to Canada's economy.

The federal ministry has also increased the frequency of existing annual tanker inspections and offshore aerial surveillance.

Organizations: First Nations, Environment Canada, Tsleil-Waututh Nation

Geographic location: B.C., VANCOUVER, Canada British Columbia United States Northern Gateway

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