Western Canada Marine Response Corporation's North Coast vessels. These boats are used to monitor water and coast sensitivities around B.C.'s North Coast, in particular at Prince Rupert and Kitimat. July 17, 2020. Photo courtesy of WCMRC.

Western Canada Marine Response Corporation's North Coast vessels. These boats are used to monitor water and coast sensitivities around B.C.'s North Coast, in particular at Prince Rupert and Kitimat. July 17, 2020. Photo courtesy of WCMRC.

“In the business of protecting what people tell us is sensitive”: Coastal Response Program maps out sensitive areas along B.C. coast

The program helps further identify and protect high-risk oil spill areas along the West Coast.

  • Jul. 17, 2020 12:00 a.m.

A coastal mapping program has been created for the B.C. coast, including along the Douglas Channel near Kitimat and along the coast in and around Prince Rupert.

The Coastal Response Program was developed by the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), an organization that deals with any kind of oil spill that occurs along the entire B.C. coast. As the WCMRC is a federal program, there is a similar organization that deals with oil spills along Canada’s East Coast.

The organization monitors areas along the coast that are at a higher risk factor of having an oil spill, Michael Lowry, Communications Manager at WCMRC said.

“We look at the risk factors, in terms of the probability side of things, and that’s usually where the traffic is,” Lowry said. “It’s really based on the shipping volume and the shipping traffic.”

Lowry said the main areas they monitor are around the bottom of Vancouver Island, at the coast in and around Prince Rupert, and more recently in Kitimat and along the Douglas Channel. These areas are among the highest for water traffic and are therefore at a higher risk for oil spills.

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The Coastal Response Program was started a few years ago as a way of further identifying and helping to protect these high-risk areas.

“The idea is if you map out the coast ahead of time and you know where these sensitivities are — so that could be environmental or cultural or, you know, even economic sensitivities —if you map where they are, you can develop protection strategies for the locations,” Lowry said.

The program allows local people to tell WCMRC where known sensitivities are, so WCMRC can put equipment at the locations and mark the sensitivities on an interactive map. That way, oil spill responders know what is needed at any given location in advance and have the proper equipment already there if a situation arises.

“What we’re looking for is for people to help us identify sensitivities ahead of time,” Lowry said. “We’re not actually looking for people to volunteer, per say, because it is dangerous for people to come down and actually help out with the cleanup…But what we do want is people who have expertise in that area. Perhaps there’s a sensitivity in that area that we’re not aware of, we want people to share that information with us.”

The Coastal Mapping Program, which is a part of the Coastal Response Program, combines the environmental data and community input to identify and test protection strategies for these sensitive areas, called Geographic Response Strategies (GRS’s). Each GRS is mapped and stored in their online database, which contains additional logistical, environmental and operational data for each site, and may involve a shoreline tactic or an on-water tactic.

With this information easily accessible, it means proactive strategies can be put in place to help minimize risk, as well as having plans and equipment in place if responders do end up having to react quickly.

“The more data that we have, the better that program’s going to be,” Lowry said. “So if people have information they want to share with us, in terms of what they feel is sensitive, we can adjust that program on the fly.”

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With a spill, there are a number of different ways to handle it, such as using booms and skimmers, or dispersants, which Lowry said are not used in Canada.

“There’s different strategies that we have based on the environmental situations or the coastal situations.”

Booms are floating, physical barriers made of plastic, metal, or other materials, which slow the spread of oil and keep it contained. Lowry said they are often used, but aren’t as effective in rough areas, so tactics have to be adapted based on different environmental and coastal situations. For rougher waters, they might have to do a strategy that’s more in-water based, rather than on top of the water or on the shore.

Lowry said they are continuously working with their mapping program to make it more responsive, by submitting information into the program and readjusting as necessary.

They have also partnered with many First Nations and coastal communities to get better input from local residents. This way, if someone gives them information they hadn’t previously known, they can easily submit into the system so that it’s up to date.

“We’re not really in the business of identifying what’s sensitive, we’re in the business of protecting what people tell us is sensitive.”

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