Canada’s leaders must learn a lesson from the Mauritius oil spill

August 25, 2020

There is no second chance when it comes to a heavy fuel oil spill


By Anna Barford, Shipping Campaigner,

Off the once pristine shores of Mauritius, a disaster is unfolding. Heavy fuel oil (HFO) is spilling into a wetland recognized internationally as important for wildlife. Hindsight is once again teaching us that there is no second chance when it comes to spilled HFO — and it’s a lesson Canada’s leaders must learn before it’s too late.

On July 25th, a bulk carrier in Mauritius ran aground on the reef and consequently spilled hundreds of liters of HFO. Immediately, this situation is dangerous to wildlife and humans as the thick fuel spreads and coats or poisons almost anything it comes into contact. Fossil fuels, particularly those thick bottom of the barrel versions that are used in marine engines, are laden with heavy metals and toxins that are carcinogenic. Many of these compounds are long-lasting in the marine environment once the fuel breaks down, and so will remain in trapped pockets and in the food chain.

Preparedness doesn’t always lead to oil recovery

The people of Mauritius really need to be commended for their efforts and quick mobilization. Booms were made remarkably quickly from available materials and were put into service to do what could be done. They have called for aid and accountability, and the world is slowly answering – but we need to keep in mind that a world class spill response that has every advantage of preparation, experts readily available, and top notch equipment will only recover a maximum 10-15 per cent of what is spilled. What is spilled into the environment will likely remain there, continuing to unintentionally expose wildlife to a variety of toxins. The same situation happening in Mauritius could easily happen during an oil spill in Canadian waters.

Oils spills are most often caused by human error and malfunctioning equipment. New ships have issues and spill, double hulled ships have issues and spill, and clean up is inadequate to prevent impacting food sources and ecology. We need to keep this in mind as the world turns its focus to accountability. Yes, we need to know what happened, but we also need to know that no amount of understanding this event can prevent a next one caused by a new mistake or an unpredictable defect. Hindsight can’t stop a malfunction.

Hindsight is a tired muscle when it comes to oil spills – it is long past time to ban HFO and move shipping beyond fossil fuels to renewable energy. There is no second chance for the Blue Lagoon of Mauritius, and there will be no second chance for the next location of this kind of accident, whether in Canada or beyond.

Canada’s worst case scenario: An oil spill in the Arctic

There are a number of worst case scenarios for this kind of accident closer to home in Canada – and one of them is a spill in the Arctic. 

The Arctic is a brutal place to clean up a spill. Not only are there waves, weather, and currents to contend with as in any other spot – there are also ice flows. Spilled fuel can get trapped, get stuck, and get caught in under-ice currents. In the colder ocean we may be discovering oil patches decades from a spill event that look like they were spilled just last week. There is no known way to clean up an HFO spill in the Arctic. None. 

It is impossible to consider the Arctic without the Indigenous populations that live there. Canada’s spill response regime doesn’t account for cultural losses – this is a direct violation of UNDRIP’s protection of cultural and spiritual practises. It needs to be rectified on each coast, but the fact that we don’t know how to clean up an HFO spill in the Arctic coupled with not accounting for cultural losses really just means that we are writing those rights off. They are too expensive, or it is too difficult to recognize them, an atrocious calculation.

But could an accident like this happen in the Arctic? Absolutely. 

It’s time for a ban on heavy fuel oil

Canada has the opportunity right now to make sure the Canadian Arctic isn’t that next unlucky location. Our Federal Government is discussing a ban on HFO, in collaboration with other Arctic nations. A ban is the only way to prevent an HFO spill. We need to amp up the pressure on the Federal Government because Arctic marine ship traffic is growing, and the ban that is being discussed is currently more like hole-ridden Swiss cheese than substantive action. 

There is no second chance once an accident happens. Instead of the painful wisdom of hindsight, we can prevent the pollution before we learn of the full devastation it would bring to the Arctic. Let’s give our hindsight muscle a rest.

Sign the petition to ban dirty ship fuels in the Arctic:

Photo credit: International Maritime Organization on Flickr