Toxic Bunker Fuel Washing Up on Kits Beach Similar to Diluted Bitumen, Calls Into Question Oil Spill Response

Oil tanker in English Bay

On Thursday toxic oil was washing up on the shores of Kitsilano Beach and English Bay in Vancouver as cleanup crews tried to contain a sizeable bunker fuel spill surrounding a bulk carrier.

Specific details about how the spill occurred are murky so far. According to MarineTraffic, a website that monitors seagoing shipping, a Panamax bulk carrier named the Marathassa arrived in the Port of Metro Vancouver on April 6th after a 2.5 week journey from South Korea. Sometime after 5 p.m. Wednesday, a sheen of oil was observed by boaters around the ship and spill cleanup was initiated. 

The federal government notified the city of Vancouver of the spill at 6 a.m. Thursday, more than 12 hours after the spill was initially reported.

*Update, 1:30pm April 10: Fuel from the spill is now reported to have reached beaches in West Vancouver and Vancouverites have expressed concern not enough is being done to prevent the spread of oil along shorelines or to clean up popular city beaches. Premier Christy Clark responded to the incident Friday, saying “Two years ago I said we weren't ready. They've proven that in the last couple days and we saw that with the Simushir as well. Somebody needs to do a better job of protecting our coast.”

CKNW's Shane Woodford reported that a special pollution response boat formerly stationed at the now shuttered Kitsilano Coast Guard base is sitting empty with no crew at Sea Island base in Richmond. Former Kits base commander Fred Moxey told Woodford that if Kits Base was still active today crews would have been on scene at the spill in six minutes with the equipment to deal with the situation.

Since the spill was discovered, cleanup teams have deployed more than 2,600 metres of oil-containing boom, and as of 9 a.m. West Coast Marine Response Corporation had recovered close to one tonne of oil. It is unclear how much oil was spilled or how much fuel the Marathassa had in its tanks.

According to Miriam Van Roosmalen, regional director of Coast Guard programs for the western region and part of the spill’s incident command group, the Canadian Coast Guard is the lead federal body responding to the spill.

Van Roosmalen said monitoring of the spill is ongoing but did confirm aerial photographs of English Bay show the size of the spill is larger than previously reported.

She added the incident will remain what she called a “mystery spill” until the source of the fuel is confirmed. The suspected ship’s owner is co-operating with the ongoing investigation, Van Roosmalen said.

Currently Port Metro Vancouver, Transport Canada, Environment Canada, B.C Ministry of Environment, City of Vancouver and the West Coast Marine Response Corporation are the key players responding to the incident.

According to Penny Ballem, city manager for Vancouver, it took more than 12 hours for the federal government to notify city officials of the spill.

Bunker Fuel Has Similarities to Oilsands Bitumen

According to a tweet from the Vancouver Fire Department, the spill is confirmed as bunker fuel — a type of heavy oil used as fuel by large ships.

Bunker fuel shares similar qualities to diluted bitumen (the oil product that would be transported inside the proposed TransMountain pipeline expansion and that was spilled during pipeline ruptures in Mayflower, Arkansas, and Kalamazoo, Michigan) in that it is thick, heavy oil that is particularly difficult to clean up from water.

Bunker fuel is lighter than bitumen, however, and doesn't contain diluents, which are used to thin bitumen to increase its flow. When spilled in marine environments, the lighter components of diluted bitumen evaporate, leaving the heavier, tar-like remainder to mix with sediment and sink, as occurred in the Kalamazoo River.*

According to a material safety data sheet, bunker fuel is a viscous liquid that is considered toxic and both an acute and chronic health hazard.

Bunker fuel is produced by heating conventional petroleum through a process called fractional distillation whereby extreme heat is used to break up oil into different components like naphtha, gasoline and diesel.

The product left over at the end of this process is bunker fuel. Only large ships with the space to heat their fuel before combusting it use this type of fuel.

Like bitumen, bunker fuel is extremely toxic and extremely dense. Its high viscosity allows it to coat surfaces (shorelines, fish, seabirds) quickly, and it is not easily removed.

The Office of Response and Restoration at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says this about bunker fuel spills:

[It] is a persistent oil; only 5-10 per cent is expected to evaporate within the first hours of a spill. Consequently, the oil can be carried hundreds of miles in the form of scattered tarballs by winds and currents. The tarballs will vary in diameter from several yards to a few inches and may be very difficult to detect visually or with remote sensing techniques.”

According to a 2013 report commissioned by the province of B.C., approximate 42 million cubic metres of bunker fuel, also known as persistent oil, is transported in B.C. waters each year.

Vancouver ports are the busiest marine ports in Canada.

Will Chemical Dispersants be Used in Cleanup?

According to Karen Wristen of Living Oceans Society, there are unclear rules determining the use of chemical dispersants for oil spill cleanup in Canada.

The situation is in flux but as it stands right now Environment Canada has to approve on a case by case basis the use of dispersants,” she said, adding “there is no agreed framework for making that decision.”

They’re looking at the ‘net environmental benefit’ for using dispersants,” she said. “How they determine that is a deep, dark secret.”

Wristen said dispersants have previously been used to clean oil spilled on rocks and boulders at Vancouver’s Westshore terminal. But she added she doesn’t think dispersants would be useful for a spill like the one currently ongoing in English Bay.

Dispersants are largely not effective against heavier oil. They are much better with conventional oil that can break up into smaller droplets.”

In cold water, heavy oil becomes extremely viscous and forms clumps and tar balls. Those are extraordinarily resistant to chemical dispersion,” Wristen said. “They’re better being cleaned up with a shovel.”

World Class” Spill Prevention and Response Standards in Question

DeSmog Canada requested comment from Transport Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, but none of these agencies were able to provide specific information on the rules and regulations concerning fuel spills from vessels of this kind.

In early 2013 Vancouverites expressed outrage at the Harper government’s decision to close the Kitsilano Coast Guard station.

Wristen said the spill calls into question the federal government’s claim it has world-class spill prevention and response standards in place.

Why is this happening on Kits beach if we’re so able to prevent spills and clean things up?” she said.

It certainly is a wake up call for the federal government claiming we have world class standards.”

Some changes were made after publication to clarify the differences and similarities between bunker fuel and bitumen.

Image Credit: Jonathan Ickikawa via Flickr