Sunday, October 19, 2014
We Dodged a Bullet - This Time.
The floundering of the Russian bulk carrier, Simushir, is bound to become some sort of benchmark for the debate over tanker safety off the British Columbia coast. It shouldn't. Here's why.
Simushir isn't a supertanker. It's a bulk carrier. Its manifest does include some bunker oil and some diesel but there's also mining equipment and "chemicals" in its holds.
500 tonnes of bunker oil and 60 tonnes of diesel does not a supertanker make. Modern supertankers come in two flavours - VLCC, or very large cargo containers, and ULCC, or ultra large cargo containers. VLCCs can carry up to 320,000 deadweight tonnes of cargo. ULCCs up that to 550,000 tonnes.
The Simushir and a supertanker - apples and oranges.
A supertanker catastrophe isn't likely to occur where Simushir floundered. The Russian cargo ship wasn't in the treacherous waters of Hecate Strait, Dixon Entrance or Douglas Channel where the supertankers of Harper's dreams will operate.
The Simushir was drifting in the relatively benign waters on the seaward side of Moresby Island. It's the equivalent of a kids' waterslide at a community park compared to white water rafting through Hell's Gate.
A potential, even if relatively modest, disaster was avoided when the Canadian Coast Guard coastal patrol vessel, Gordon Reid, managed to tow the Russian ship out to sea, 40 kms. from the coast of Moresby Island. The Reid was just enough ship to tow the bulk carrier but, even then, it lost all three of its tow lines in the process.
In the well-documented, diabolical storms that rake the Hecate Strait, with an actual VLCC in distress, the Gordon Reid would probably be reduced to assisting survivors.
Bunker oil isn't Dilbit - diluted bitumen. Bunker oil is oil. Bitumen is diluted tar. The sea is somewhat capable of dispersing conventional oil through surface wave action so long as the spill isn't too close to any shoreline. Dilbit, however, doesn't have the physical properties of conventional oil. Once spilled, the diluent or condensate separates out. The diluent heads to the surface, the denser bitumen congeals and heads to the bottom, carried to its final resting place by deepwater currents. Spread over a very large area and at great depths the bitumen is out of reach of oil spill responders and their "world class" equipment.
It took a massive and protracted effort to scrape most of the bitumen from the bottom of the shallow, slow-moving Kalamazoo River in Michigan. You can think of the Kalamazoo fiasco as a best case scenario. You can also think of a major bitumen spill on the northern BC coast as the worst of worst case scenarios.
At Kalamazoo, the burst Enbridge pipe dumped about a million gallons, just under 24,000 barrels, of dilbit into the river. The Exxon Valdez, a large supertanker for its time, lost somewhere between 11 and 32-million gallons of crude oil (not bitumen). Modern VLCCs and ULCCs carry far more still.
So, we dodged a bullet this time, several in fact. The Simushir was no supertanker. It was carrying a modest cargo of bunker oil and diesel, no bitumen. It wasn't in the treacherous inshore passages of the northern BC coast. By local standards, the winds and sea state were moderate enough to allow a Coast Guard patrol vessel to tow the bulk cargo carrier out to sea and safety, buying enough time for an ocean-going tug to arrive on scene - eventually.
Simushir is a wake-up call but the point to remember, when it's held up as an example of our "world class" rescue services, this time we were holding all the aces.