BC must update plans for hazardous spill response, audit warns

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B.C. Hazardous Material Response Plan
The plan that the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy currently uses to coordinate a provincial-level response to a major hazardous spill is out of date. Photo Credit: Environmental Emergency Program/Office of the Auditor General of B.C

British Columbia is not currently managing hazardous spills as effectively as it could be, warns a new report from the Office of the Auditor General of B.C.  

Among the concerns raised in the February report is that the plan that the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy currently uses to coordinate a provincial-level response to a major hazardous spill is out of date.  

The B.C. Hazardous Material Response Plan was developed in 2013 under the ministry’s Environmental Emergency Program. It defines the province’s approach to a significant release, or threat of release, of hazardous materials into the environment.  

B.C.’s Auditor General, Michael Pickup, says the plan requires an update.  

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“Updates to the plans were required to align with the province’s approach to emergency planning,” the report states. “Staff also identified that revisions to the plans were needed to meet commitments under the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.  

Pickup also noted that the Inland Oil Spill Response Plan requires an update. It defines the scope and structure of the province’s role in responding to a major inland oil spill resulting from a pipeline rupture, train derailment, motor vehicle incident, or other events. 

In response, the ministry says it has prepared a draft updated provincial land-based hazardous materials spill response plan that will adhere to the new planning requirements in the Emergency and Disaster Management Act and associated regulations.  

The auditor’s report shows 5,306 spills and other environmental emergencies were reported in the 2021-22 fiscal year, up from 4,436 in 2018-19. The most recent numbers for the 2022-23 fiscal year show 4,889 reports. 

B.C.’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy says the province will act on all nine of the recommendations offered by the Office of the Auditor General of B.C. in its report.   

“The auditor general’s recommendations reinforce the work we are doing to strengthen and improve our processes, and our engagement with the Office of Auditor General is informing our work to develop a new environmental-emergency management action plan. We will release this plan later this year,” announced George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, in a statement.  

Despite the province’s major spills response plan requiring an update, the auditor’s report had positive findings as well. It found that response officers followed policy and procedures to assess all seven high-risk incidents that took place between November 23, 2020, and March 1, 2023.  

Among the other major findings from the provincial watchdog was that the Environmental Emergency Program hadn’t reviewed its training and development procedure annually as required. It has not been updated since it was implemented in 2018. 

“If training isn’t reviewed every year, there’s a risk of it not aligning with current standards, regulations and best practices,” the report warned. 

The audit also drew attention to First Nations notification protocols following major incidents. With over 200 distinct First Nations in the province, the Environmental Emergency Program has recognized that it has “difficulties consistently notifying” potentially affected First Nations, and planned to pilot an automated notification system for 14 coastal First Nations.  

“We are already taking concrete actions to improve our processes,” Heyman responded. “We have done important work with our federal partners and Indigenous Nations in the Northern Shelf Bioregion to develop collaborative response and recovery plans, in addition to our work with Alertable to ensure First Nations are informed quickly when an incident is reported,” the minister added. 

Additionally, the audit notes that the polluter-pay principle is a “key tenet” of hazardous spills regulation. The ministry must try to recover costs relating to staff time, equipment, and contractors, from the responsible person, the audit states. The Environmental Emergency program, however, has not initiated cost recovery as required, or recovered substantive costs from those responsible for hazardous spills, the audit found.  

Pickup found that response officers had only initiated cost recovery for 21 of the 44 Code 2 spills that took place between November 23, 2020, and March 1, 2023. He said there was a known responsible person for 15 of the 23 remaining Code 2 spills, but no documentation explaining why cost recovery wasn’t initiated. 

By the end of February 2023, the cost-recovery program had recovered approximately $900,000 of spill-related costs and approximately $13.9 million remained outstanding, most of which relates to the 2019 clean up of the Neucel pulp mill in Port Alice, which declared bankruptcy in 2020.

Related Professional Development Course

Attend “Dealing with Environmental Emergencies and Spills” on April 25th at the CANECT 2024 Environmental Compliance and Due Diligence Training Event in Vaughan, Ontario. Attend this course to be sure of your responsibilities; implement measures to increase resiliency; avoid liability; and encourage proactive best practices. Visit www.canect.net for more information.

Watch: Managing Hazardous Spills in B.C.

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