Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

Tanker safety reductions proposed at Canada’s riskiest port

January 26, 2015
Move to appease oil companies raises concerns Northern Gateway ‘commitments’ might be foggy

VANCOUVER—Groups opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker project today expressed their concern in the face of a major change to safety requirements proposed for a port assessed by Transport Canada as having the highest risk of any existing Canadian port for an oil spill. The change would reduce by up to 70 percent the requirement for pilots to board ships outside Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, before entering the busy port. The Canadian Marine Pilots’ Association and Unifor (representing 1,000 workers whose livelihoods depend on the fisheries) believe that the review was initiated at the request of oil companies operating the port’s oil terminal, who complained of vessel traffic delays and costs involved in picking up the pilots.

Sierra Club BC and Living Oceans Society expressed concern that safety commitments made to the public could be so lightly set aside. “If the federal government is willing to roll back critical protection to speed up tanker traffic for oil companies, then what hope can we have that Enbridge will be required to live up to their promises in the Great Bear Sea?” said Caitlyn Vernon, Campaigns Director of Sierra Club BC.

Transport Canada regulates marine safety and it assessed Placentia Bay in 1990, finding it at risk of a major oil spill once every 27 to 33 years. Public consultation and expert review recommended pilotage for all vessels as a key measure to reduce that risk. As recently as 2010, Transport Canada extended the waters designated as ‘restricted’ within Placentia Bay; yet still in 2013, the federal expert panel on tanker safety placed the port in the highest risk category.

The Canadian Marine Pilots’ Association condemned the plan to reduce pilotage requirements: "Placentia Bay is one of the busiest areas in the country in terms of oil and petroleum products shipping. Marine pilotage plays an essential role in contributing to the safe navigation of tankers in the Bay and the requirements currently in place were established after careful analysis. We are very concerned by the possibility that these requirements could be weakened,” said Capt. Simon Pelletier, President of both the Canadian Marine Pilots’ Association and the International Maritime Pilots' Association.

Living Oceans Society points to the process and draws a clear parallel with Northern Gateway: “Our concern is that key measures proposed by Enbridge for the Northern Gateway project, such as reduced tanker speed to avoid whale strikes, could mean nothing at the end of the day,” said Karen Wristen, Executive Director and an intervenor in the Northern Gateway review. “The federal government cannot just keep saying 'World Class Tanker Safety' while reducing the actual, on-the-water protection on every coast. Canada is unprepared for a major tanker accident and the situation has only been made worse despite all the rhetoric.”


Contact Information

Karen Wristen, Living Oceans Society 604-788-5634

Caitlyn Vernon, Sierra Club BC 250-896-3500

Living Oceans SocietySierra Club BC


Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel (JRP) recommendations regarding tanker acceptance program and terminal regulations

“The Panel recognizes the commitments made by Northern Gateway to implement, monitor, and enforce its marine voluntary commitments and its response to the TERMPOL Review Committee's report. The Panel finds that these voluntary commitments should be mandatory and enforceable as conditions under any certificates which may be issued under the National Energy Board Act. These conditions would be enforced by the National Energy Board.”1

The commitments made by Northern Gateway include the following:

  • Northern Gateway committed to develop a tanker vetting program, called the Tanker Acceptance Program, to ensure that tanker owners and operators implement its marine voluntary commitments. Gateway would control access to the Kitimat Terminal through its Tanker Acceptance Program, which would be developed and implemented before the start of terminal operation.
  • In addition to the Tanker Acceptance Program, Terminal Regulations would be developed by Northern Gateway, specifying rules tankers must follow to be allowed to berth and load or discharge cargo. Northern Gateway said that Terminal Regulations are in effect at most marine terminals worldwide. Tankers that fail to abide by the Terminal Regulations risk being refused service and required to leave the terminal. In addition, a Port (or Terminal) Information Book would be developed to provide the master of the tanker with general information such as the operational regulations, navigation information, general weather, ship and crew services, local customs, and escort requirements.
  • Transport Canada said that the Tanker Acceptance Program is a voluntary measure, and that there are no provisions in Canadian marine shipping legislation that would make voluntary measures mandatory or enforceable. It also said that the program would be developed, implemented, and enforced by Northern Gateway.
  • Northern Gateway committed to provide copies of its Terminal Operations Manual and Port Information Book to Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Pacific Pilotage Authority Canada for review at least 6 months before the start of terminal operations. Northern Gateway said that it would also provide all oil tankers and their agents with the Terminal Operations Manual and Port Information Book in time for them to understand and fully comply with these documents.2

Implications of the Placentia Bay proposed roll-back of safety measures to Northern Gateway and B.C.’s coast

Some of the “voluntary marine commitments” made by Enbridge Northern Gateway include:

  • speed limits to reduce ship strikes on whales;
  • whale-spotting boats to be sent out in advance of the tanker (to do what, exactly, is unclear);
  • a close escort tug would be used for all laden and ballasted tankers, beginning at the pilot boarding stations, to and from the marine terminal;
  • a tethered tug, in addition to a close escort tug, would be used for all laden tankers in the Confined Channel Assessment Area;
  • in the Open Water Area, all tankers (laden and ballasted) would be accompanied by one close escort tug between the pilot boarding station and the Confined Channel Assessment Area;
  • the placement of caches of spill response equipment throughout the confined channel area; and
  • training of masters and crew for all tankers entering the confined channel area.1

Placentia Bay Pilotage Risk Management Methodology (PRMM)

The port of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, handles more oil tanker traffic than any other in Canada, as it serves Newfoundland’s offshore oil rigs as well as tankers from around the world.

Transport Canada assessed the oil spill risk at Placentia Bay as the highest in the country: they said the port would see a major spill once in 27 to 33 years. Although the approach to the port is much less complicated than the approach to Kitimat, Placentia Bay is plagued by fog and North Atlantic storms. In 1990 safety measures were recommended to lower the risk. One of the most important of those measures was designating the area “restricted waters”, requiring pilots to board all ships before they enter the bay. Extensive public consultation and an expert review done from 2006 to 2010 recommended extending the boundary of the restricted waters even further, and leaving the pilot boarding station at its present location. Transport Canada concurred.

Now, the Crown corporation responsible for pilotage, the Atlantic Pilotage Authority, wants to move the pilot boarding station inside the restricted waters of Placentia Bay and Transport Canada appears to be going along with it. This move would exempt an estimated 70 percent of the shipping traffic from bringing a pilot onboard at the current boarding station. These ships would board a pilot 20 km further in the bay.

The pilots say it’s too dangerous. The busy shipping lane is only a half-mile wide inside the bay. There would be no manoeuvring room, especially in bad weather; and the proposed location for the boarding station is too near rocky shores.

Further information

Submission from the Canadian Marine Pilots Association to the Atlantic Pilotage Authority.

Press release from Fish Food and Allied Workers Union (FFAW-Unifor).


  1. Considerations, vol.2 of the Joint Review Panel recommendations, at para. 7.3.3
  2. Considerations, vol.2 of the Joint Review Panel recommendations, at para. 7.3.2



  • Map of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.