Burrard Inlet, Beaches, and Oil Spills: A Historical Perspective

Last week, British Columbians once again witnessed the effects of oil on Burrard Inlet. Local authorities cautioned residents to avoid the water along the shores in Vancouver and West Vancouver after a large slick of bunker fuel oil appeared on the surface of Burrard Inlet. Around 5pm Wednesday, April 8, 2015, a boater notified Port Metro Vancouver that an oil slick was visible and likely leaking from one of the numerous freighters moored in the inlet. By Friday morning, the Coast Guard estimated that the leak was at least 2,700 litres.

Twitter users posted dozens of photos of globs of oil washed up along the shoreline. They took selfies of their hands dipped in the shiny black residue.

It was a beautiful sunny day, but one that many residents of the Lower Mainland agreed was a sad reminder of the ever-present risks involved with the transportation and use of oil on the harbour.

Of course, this was not the first time that Vancouver’s beaches were coated with oil. Off-shore oil spills on Canada’s Pacific coast and Burrard Inlet have happened before. While they have not been frequent occurrences, these spills have been one of the historical consequences of increased shipping in the harbour, expanded refining activity, and the transportation and use of petroleum products in post-war Canadian energy history. Oily messes are signatures of Canada’s oil-based economy of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The most immediate precedent for last week’s spill occurred in the autumn of 1973. In the span of a month, two separate freighter incidents on Burrard Inlet resulted in the spillage of bunker fuel oil. The scenes were remarkably reminiscent of those witnessed in Vancouver last week.

In the dark hours of the early morning at 3:19am on Tuesday, September 25, 1973, two freighters, Sun Diamond and Erawan, collided at the entrance to Burrard Inlet. The accident resulted in the release of an estimated 189,000 litres of light bunker oil. By 8:30am, Ministry of Transport and National Harbours Board tugs had separated the freighters and encircled the leaking vessel with a boom. Emergency response crews managed to contain about half the oil around the Erawan while the other half escaped and drifted onward with the tides. At noon, spotters at Ambleside Beach reported globs of oil washing ashore. Eventually, tidal currents smeared the massive oil slick along a thirty-kilometre stretch of coastline, mostly in West Vancouver. [1]

Volunteers cleaning Ambleside Beach in West Vancouver, 1973. Source: John Denniston (johndenniston.ca).
Volunteers cleaning Ambleside Beach in West Vancouver, 1973. Source: John Denniston.

Heavy to light coatings of oil despoiled Ambleside Beach, Dundarave Beach, Cypress Park, Point Atkinson Lighthouse Park, Whytecliff Park, and parts of Bowen Island. Municipal workers and scores of volunteers from the Lower Mainland toiled for hours to try to clean up the mess. Spreading peat moss and physically removing as much oil as possible, workers and volunteers tirelessly fought to clear away the “Black, clinging lumps of heavy bunker oil” that washed ashore with each wave. Work crews burned the oil-soaked debris, including logs, in large bonfires on the beaches. According to K.E. Ricker of the Terrain Sciences Division of the Geological Survey of Canada, following his observations of the effects of the oil spill on the shoreline, the work was made easier by the absorptive capacity of driftwood along the beaches. “Were it not for the continuous presence of beach driftwood,” he wrote, “the expense and magnitude of cleaning up the Burrard Inlet oil spill would have been far greater.” He also concluded that “In spite of the advance of technology, immediate clean-up of a large oil spill will be a formidable if not an impossible task on a rocky coastline.” [2]

Oil spill cleanup in West Vancouver at Ambleside. Source: John Denniston (johndenniston.ca)
Oil spill cleanup in West Vancouver at Ambleside. Source: John Denniston (johndenniston.ca)

Local observers noted the immediate ecological effects of the oil spill, particularly the impact on wild birds. SPCA officials predicted difficulty in capturing, cleaning, and rehabilitating oil-covered birds. One West Vancouver resident reported finding two birds “coated in at least two inches of bunker oil.” Another resident of Bowen Island found a dead bird completely smothered with oil. By September 28, federal environmental officials began to receive reports of dead fish in English Bay and off Bowen Island. [3]

Columnist and recent co-founder of Greenpeace, Bob Hunter, had little sympathy for Vancouver residents and “the rich folks living along the north shore of English Bay” who decried the fouling of local beaches. He drew attention to the fact that sewage and industrial chemicals had already so polluted the waters of English Bay and the rest of Burrard Inlet that swimming was inadvisable. “And if there is any city that deserves to have oil washing at the foot of its towers,” wrote Hunter, “it has to be Vancouver — the city which poisoned its own sheltering bay so badly it really doesn’t matter that another layer of scum has been added on top.” [4]

Vancouver harbour master, Captain Roy Holland, insisted that the response and clean up was a success. He claimed that “Everything possible that could have been done to alleviate the effects of the oil spill was done, and done as quickly as possible after the vessel collided.” [5]

The editors of the Vancouver Sun were less satisfied with the outcome. They noted that, obviously, human error was inevitable and that “No one needs to be told that man is fallible, the gods whimsical, the immutable combination that makes obscene nonsense of assurances of safety on the proposed West Coast tanker run.” The main trouble, however, was that the federal government’s oil spill response and clean up was haphazard and improvised. The last-minute planning and scrambling for necessary supplies in local supermarkets, they wrote, “smacks more of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” In short, the oil spill was a warning,

The night-time lights of the freighters awaiting cargoes in English Bay, reflecting green now, on the oil-covered water, signal a pretty clear message. We’ve just got to stop muddling through. [6]

Volunteer cleaning oil spill in Stanley Park, 1973. Source: John Denniston (johndenniston.ca)
Volunteer cleaning oil spill in Stanley Park, 1973. Source: John Denniston (johndenniston.ca)

Within less than a month, another bunker oil spill occurred on Burrard Inlet. The front page of the Vancouver Sun on October 24, 1973, featured a man struggling to remove gobs of black oil from the shoreline of Stanley Park near the Nine O’Clock Gun. Westfalia, a German freighter, spilled an estimated 3,400 litres of bunker oil at Centennial Pier No. 4 in the harbour. Captain Holland was alerted to the spill at 3:41am and by daybreak, Clean Seas Canada, a contractor hired by the Ministry of Transport, had a boom around the ship. But by 10:30am, oil was drifting ashore at Stanley Park. Once again, workers and volunteers rushed to clean up the mess. [7]

British Columbians saw both of these oil spills as omens of disaster for Burrard Inlet and the rest of the province’s coast. In particular, they viewed these spills in light of debates over the construction of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline and establishment of a West Coast oil tanker shipping route. In 1971, the BC government passed a motion calling on the federal government to prohibit oil tanker traffic along the province’s coastline. Howard McDiarmid, Member of the Legislative Assembly for Alberni, introduced the following motion:

That this House expresses to the Federal Government their deep misgivings over the ecological disaster which will engulf the coast of British Columbia following the construction of a trans-Alaska pipe-line and attendant supertanker transport of oil off the coast of British Columbia. We ask the Federal Government to use every available resource at their disposal to persuade the American Government to use alternate methods of transporting crude oil from Alaska to the United States. [8]

The anxiety about oil tanker shipments heightened in late January 1973 when the freighter, Irish Stardust, grounded in Broughton Strait and released roughly 227,000 litres of heavy fuel oil. A Ministry of Transport representative told the Globe and Mail, “everywhere you look there’s oil.” Oil coated the south shore of Cormorant Island and the beaches of the nearby town of Alert Bay. Francis Richter, House Leader for the Official Opposition, used the occasion to reiterate the Social Credit Party’s stance on oil tanker shipments along BC’s coast: “On this the position of the official Opposition is well known – we’re opposed to the transportation of large tankers down the west coast of British Columbia.” [9]

Map of oil spill on beaches of Cormorant Island, 1973. Source: D.R. Green, C. Bawden, W.J. Cretney, and C.S. Wong, The Alert Bay Oil Spill: A One-Year Study of the Recovery of a Contaminated Bay (Victoria: Environment Canada, 1974)
Map of oil spill on beaches of Cormorant Island, 1973. Source: D.R. Green, C. Bawden, W.J. Cretney, and C.S. Wong, The Alert Bay Oil Spill: A One-Year Study of the Recovery of a Contaminated Bay (Victoria: Environment Canada, 1974)

On the day of the first Burrard Inlet spill in September 1973, BC Premier Dave Barrett notified the Legislative Assembly of the freighter collision. David Anderson, leader of the Liberal Party, drew a direct connection from the incident to the debates over the Trans-Alaskan:

I point out, however, that the spill is an indication of the problems we may well face due to the failure of this government, among other people, to properly understand and appreciate the difficulties we have had for the past two years in opposing a far more dangerous, far more difficult problem: that of the Alaskan shipment of oil from Valdez to Cherry Point. [10]

The Vancouver Sun saw the issue from a regionalist perspective. By October 1973, it seemed as though the the Canadian government had accepted the proposed pipeline and shipping route from Valdez, Alaska, to Cherry Point, Washington, in spite of the ecological risks and opposition from the BC government. “If you thought the federal government wasn’t really facing West,” wrote the editors of the Sun, “you were right.” [11]

Oil spills on Burrard Inlet in 1973 were a symbol and a warning for British Columbians facing bigger questions regarding the potential impact of the transportation and use of oil on the Northwest Coast. But they were just one of the possible adverse environmental effects of oil.

Clearing site for Imperial Oil refinery at Ioco, 1914. Source: City of Vancouver Archives.
Clearing site for Imperial Oil refinery at Ioco, 1914. Source: City of Vancouver Archives.

This photograph from the City of Vancouver Archives is a vivid reminder that, for more than a century, oil has reshaped the environment of Burrard Inlet. At Ioco in Port Moody in 1914, loggers and horses stood amid the debris of a massive clear-cut into the coastal forest. They hacked away the trees to make room for the Imperial Oil refinery that still stands on the shores of the inlet among other refineries.

The oil spill last Wednesday is just one of a wide range of environmental effects of oil on Burrard Inlet and coastal British Columbia. Off-shore oil spills capture our attention and, occasionally, stir us to action, but the photograph above should also remind us that the relationships among people, oil, and the rest of nature are complicated, multifarious, and historical.

Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor in the Department of History at York University. Find out more about his work at http://seankheraj.com.

Note: Special thanks to John Denniston for permission to use his extraordinary photographs of the clean-up efforts in 1973.

[1] “Freighters Collide Off Point Grey” Vancouver Sun, 25 September 1973, 1; Robert Turner, “Ship arrested after Vancouver collision, oil spill” Globe and Mail, 27 September 1973, 1; K.E. Ricker, “The Effects of the Burrard Inlet Oil Spill on Various Geologic Intertidal Environments” Report of activities part B, November 1973 to March 1974, ed. R. G. Blackadar, Geological Survey of Canada, Paper no. 74-1B (1974): 205.

[2] “Mopping Up” Vancouver Sun, 26 September 1973, 46; Ricker, “The Effects of the Burrard Inlet Oil Spill on Various Geologic Intertidal Environments” 206-207.

[3] Stewart McNeill, “One gull sums up whole sorry mess” Vancouver Sun, 26 September 1973, 46; “Oil spill battled by floodlight” Vancouver Sun, 27 September 1973, 43; “Vancouver shore gets taste of oil” Vancouver Sun, 28 September 1973, 2.

[4] Bob Hunter column, Vancouver Sun, 28 September 1973, 34.

[5] “Clean-up crews win oil spill fight; gov’t probe to seek cause of collision” Vancouver Sun, 25 September 1973, 2.

[6] “Gallant effort, but…” Vancouver Sun, 27 September 1973, 4.

[7] “Oil spill hits Stanley Park beach” Vancouver Sun 24 October 1973, 1; “30-ton oil spill fouls Vancouver park shore” Globe and Mail, 25 October 1973, 9.

[8] Official Report of the Debates of the Legislative Assembly, Second Session, 29th Parliament, February 4, 1971, page 245-246 https://www.leg.bc.ca/hansard

[9] D.R. Green, C. Bawden, W.J. Cretney, and C.S. Wong, The Alert Bay Oil Spill: A One-Year Study of the Recovery of a Contaminated Bay (Victoria: Environment Canada, 1974), 1; “Oil from grounded Irish freighter called worst spill on B.C. coast” Globe and Mail, 27 January 1973, 4; Official Report of the Debates of the Legislative Assembly, First Session, 30th Parliament, January 26, 1973, page 5 https://www.leg.bc.ca/hansard

[10] Official Report of the Debates of the Legislative Assembly, Third Session, 30th Parliament, September 25, 1973, page 208 https://www.leg.bc.ca/hansard

[11] “Left to an oily fate” Vancouver Sun, 26 October 1973, 4.

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