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Taxpayers last resort for cleanup tab

May 06 2012

Polluter pay is the basis of oil-spill response in Canada and taxpayers should not end up on the hook, according to the federal government.

"The polluter is responsible for cleaning up the spill, appointing an on-scene commander and managing the response to the spill," said Transport Canada spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu.

"If the polluter is unable to respond, unwilling to take action or unknown, the Canadian Coast Guard becomes the on-scene commander during an incident."

All tankers, large vessels and oil-handling facilities must belong to the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation and have an oil-spill response plan.

Insurance is also compulsory for ship owners.

Damage claims are funnelled through the Canadian Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund or the International Oil Pollution Fund.

However, some critics believe funds in Canada do not have the depth to pay for cleanup of a major spill.

"Once the ship owner runs out of insurance, he can legally walk away and say 'That's your problem, government,' " said Stafford Reid of EnviroEmerg Consulting Services.

Reid, who wrote a report for the Living Oceans Society on marine vessel risks and response plans, said that in the case of an incident such as a major spill from a bulk carrier, the insurance money would likely last less than a week.

In addition to the cost, the immediate worry in the case of a major spill would be how to clean up bitumen, which would likely sink below the surface, said Sheila Malcolmson, Islands Trust chairwoman.

Bitumen is a thick slime of unrefined tar that is mixed with condensate, a toxic solvent, so it can move through pipelines.

"There is no capacity to deal with oil sinking in the water. We have asked the federal government about the capacity to deal with a bitumen spill and we haven't had any reassurance," Malcolmson said.

"You can't boom it and you can't skim it and you can't see it from the air."

Federal government spokesmen said research is being done into "non-traditional" fuels and Environment Canada is leading the investigation.

The bitumen-cleanup question is also being studied in the U.S. where it came to public attention in 2010 after an Enbridge pipeline burst in Michigan and leaked about 843,000 gallons of bitumen into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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