A different kind of disaster

May 6, 2015 | Viewpoints | Volume 19 Issue 10
Katie Doke Sawatzky,

My family and I often walk through the old-growth forests that surround the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus and then down to the waters of English Bay. There is lots to look for along the way: pileated woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees in the trees, slugs on the trails, and, when we get to the water, crabs under the rocks at low tide. Being from the Prairies, it took a while to get used to the ocean air and the smell of seaweed drying on the rocks. But the beach has become a more familiar place.

So when I turned on the radio on April 9 and heard there had been an oil spill in English Bay only a day earlier, my instinct was to rise up off the couch and go down to help. Here was a real ecological disaster not five kilometres from my door. But then the announcer said that Vancouver residents were urged not to help clean up the beaches.

That job was for the professionals, like the Western Canadian Marine Response Corp., an organization funded mainly by Kinder Morgan. It turns out that bunker fuel—the spill came from a freighter stationed in the bay—is very toxic and requires special equipment to remove from surfaces because it’s so thick.

When there are tornadoes, hurricanes or fires, humans always help in the aftermath. But this type of disaster is different. While the actual spill is hazardous to oceanic ecosystems, helping out—scrubbing oil off shore rocks with soapy water—is hazardous to us.

In short, we can do nothing about oil spills. What’s done is done. Clean-up crews remove as much oil as they can, but it’s rarely, if ever, all collected. Birds are coated and damage underneath the water’s surface isn’t known until tests are taken. It’s been happening for a while, too. Over the past 40 years there have been eight spills in the Burrard Inlet/English Bay area alone, most of them more severe than the one on April 8.

A week later, after dropping my son off at pre-school, I drove down to the beach. I carried my three-month-old in her car seat and set her on a big flat rock near the water. I took the time to look around me. I didn’t see any oil residue. The seaweed was still green, the crabs were still there, herons fished farther out in the bay. I turned around and watched the people walk along the paths and heard the sound of dogs barking echo off the forest’s edge.

I wondered if I was the only one there thinking about the spill. I asked myself why we create 80,000-tonne behemoths in the first place and fuel them with life-killing compounds? Isn’t it bound to go wrong?

I looked out at the water and mountain views, and then I looked at the car seat sitting on the rock next to me. It’s a price we’re willing to pay, I guess. Transporting goods quickly and safely is what we do. It’s how we live and move and have our being.

While the media is concerned with the slow response of the federally funded Coast Guard, I realize it’s not about blaming the slow response of a few. It’s about the complicity of the many in economic systems that privilege consumptive human lifestyles over non-human life.

Some know this and try to make things right. Directly Affected, an initiative of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, filmed people cleaning up rocks in English Bay a day after the spill. Despite the health risks, the smell and the grease, they were on their hands and knees scrubbing the rocks.

Katie Doke Sawatzky can be reached at katiesawatzky@gmail.com.

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