Small oil tankers banned from Active Pass

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An incident that saw a fully laden oil tanker transit Active Pass in April will not be permitted to reoccur in the foreseeable future, according to a new order by the Pacific Pilotage Authority. 

The crown corporation, which is responsible for the pilotage of all ships over 350 tonnes through British Columbia’s coastal waters, issued a notice to industry last month stating piloted vessels carrying oil, pollutants or hazardous cargoes in bulk “will not” transit Active Pass or Porlier Pass. The requirement has been made available to the public at large and will remain in place until a risk assessment can be completed. 

Barry Swanson, one of the concerned citizens who witnessed the MV Kassos travel through the pass this spring, considers the news to be a good first step.

“I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not incumbent on the pilotage authority to distribute a notice to the public, but I think because of the outcry this [incident] incurred they decided they would,” Swanson said.

Swanson is a founder of the Salish Sea Orca Squad Protection Society, which is dedicated to increasing awareness about the orcas in the Salish Sea, notably the critically endangered southern resident killer whales. He and his wife Rachelle Hayden have been part-time residents on Galiano for five years. They were out for a hike when they glimpsed the vessel in the pass.

Shipping rules already require tankers over 40,000 tonnes to take Boundary Pass when travelling the region. The MV Kassos, registered to Liberia, is 103 metres long and 6,256 tonnes fully loaded. Until now most pilots guiding smaller tankers have avoided threading the narrow pass between Mayne and Galiano islands. People who witnessed the MV Kassos pass through were both surprised to see it and to find out it was there lawfully.

“We were really shocked, obviously,” Swanson said. “Some people interviewed have talked about the size of the tanker, because it is a smaller one, but this is dangerous goods.”

Hayden managed to get a photo of the tanker and sent it to her good friend Gerald Graham, an oil spill expert living in Victoria who has consulted for government and intergovernmental agencies such as the World Bank and UNESCO. Graham immediately contacted the Pacific Pilotage Authority.

The organization told Graham the pilot in this case was nearing the end of his eight-hour work window and decided to take Active Pass instead of Boundary Pass to avoid adding another two hours to the trip, which would have meant having a second pilot take over. Graham said the pilotage authority issued a notice to pilots telling them not to bring tankers through the route soon after he corresponded with them. He suggested upgrading that to the notice of industry, which they soon did. The benefit, he said, is that everyone knows the rules, including ship captains and company managers, so it’s not just local pilots trying to convince them. 

“The Pacific Pilotage Authority has regulatory authority, so the rules are binding,” Graham said. 

Graham observed risk of an oil spill is elevated in Active Pass, along with the potential environmental impact. Conditions such as geography, currents and busy ferry traffic all add up to a dangerous situation. 

“They’re very, very tricky waters to navigate and it’s an extremely narrow passageway as well. There’s risk of collision and there’s a rocky shoreline, so if a tanker lost power and ended up on the rocks you could have a very serious oil spill,” Graham said. 

Graham said the MV Kassos appeared to be carrying heavy fuel oil, and would have capacity for around 40,000 barrels in 12 tanks. Even if just one tank were punctured in an accident, it could mean 3,000 barrels of oil released into the water. 

“Why take the risk when you could go through Boundary Pass?” Graham asked. 

Swanson said the southern resident killer whales are frequent users of Active Pass during the summer months, usually starting in July, when they might pass through three or four times a week on their feeding loop following the salmon. They continue to frequent the area through October, and can still be seen at times through the fall and winter. Bigg’s or transient killer whales that feed off marine mammals are also frequent visitors. 

“The implications of an oil spill are not just to cetaceans, and not just to the southern residents who are already critically endangered. More importantly, the whole biosphere would be massively affected, so that’s my concern,” Swanson said.

Swanson believes a firmer ban on oil tankers in Active Pass needs to come from Transport Canada. 

Transport Canada says it made amendments to the Pilotage Act in June 2019 as part of several actions taken through the Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan to better protect local coasts and waterways, while strengthening Canada’s marine safety.

“These amendments provide for a stronger, modernized pilotage system, with increased national consistency, and greater efficiency and transparency. There are currently no plans to further restrict shipping through Active Pass beyond existing regulations,” the department told the Driftwood.

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