Canada couldn't handle big oil spill: watchdog

OTTAWA Tue Dec 7, 2010 11:51pm IST

1 of 2. Canada's Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan speaks during a news conference in Ottawa December 7, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Chris Wattie

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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's government is not ready to handle a major oil spill from a tanker, in part because its emergency response plan is out of date, Parliament's environmental watchdog said in a damning report on Tuesday.

Scott Vaughan, commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, also said Ottawa did not have enough data to monitor what impact development of the oil sands in Western Canada was having on water supplies.

Concerns about the damage an oil spill could do in Canadian waters increased after the BP drilling accident in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year.

Vaughan said Canada, bordered by three oceans and home to the world's longest coastline, was particularly vulnerable to the consequences of a spill.

"I am troubled that the government is not ready to respond to a major spill," Vaughan said in the report. "We note several areas of concern ... these must be addressed."

Responsibility for dealing with a tanker spill is split between the federal environment and transport ministries, as well as the Coast Guard.

Vaughan, noting that the Coast Guard had not done a risk assessment on oil spills since 2000, said its national emergency response plan was out of date. He also said it did not have a reliable system to track spills.

Echoing widespread concerns expressed by experts, he said a big spill would be particularly disastrous in the Arctic, given its rich wildlife and lack of infrastructure.

In response, federal Environment Minister John Baird said the government was taking steps to ensure the Coast Guard was better equipped to handle spills.

Vaughan, noting that his office had complained for decades about the record of various governments, criticized Ottawa for "common and long-standing weaknesses" in the way it managed green issues.

Green activists regularly accuse the minority Conservative government of ignoring the environment. The Conservatives' power base is in Western Canada, home to the country's thriving oil industry.

Vaughan also rapped the government for not adequately monitoring fresh water resources and failing to produce a plan to adapt to the impact of climate change.

Green groups are particularly critical of the oil sands industry in Western Canada, arguing pollution from mining projects threatens the country's largest river system.

Vaughan said the federal environment ministry had just one long-term water quality monitoring station about 150 km (93 miles) south of the oil sands in the province of Alberta.

"This station was not designed to monitor pollutants related to oil sands development," he said.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway)

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