Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

Twenty-seven years after Exxon Valdez: Federal government needs to legislate tanker ban

March 24, 2016

VANCOUVER—Groups are commending the federal government’s commitment to protect the north coast of British Columbia from oil spills with a tanker ban, and calling on the government to make it a permanent, legislated oil tanker ban. On the 27th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill that devastated the community of Cordova, Alaska and left Prince William Sound with an oily legacy that persists to this day, Sierra Club BC and Living Oceans Society say that a legislated oil tanker ban is the only certain way to protect B.C.’s north coast from a similar fate.

“The voluntary ban that’s been in place since the Exxon Valdez oil spill was completely disregarded by the previous government when they approved Enbridge Northern Gateway tankers travelling from Kitimat to ports in Asia,” said Karen Wristen, Executive Director of Living Oceans Society.  “It is even more important the ban be given the force of legislation now the science clearly shows that diluted bitumen can’t be cleaned up with conventional oil spill response technology.”

The U.S. National Academy of Science published a comprehensive study of the fate and behaviour of spilled diluted bitumen (dilbit) last December, citing evidence from the notorious Kalamazoo and Mayflower dilbit spills.  The multi-disciplinary panel of experts concluded that conventional spill response technology and plans are unable to effectively deal with dilbit. It is more dense and sticky than conventional oil and so defies most kinds of spill response equipment.  Also, in fresh or salt water it can submerge or sink to the bottom, making it impossible to find.

“The Exxon Valdez oil spill continues to be a sobering reminder that accidents happen, clean-up is impossible, and the environmental and economic impacts last for decades,” said Caitlyn Vernon, Campaigns Director for Sierra Club BC. “Coastal First Nations have already banned oil tankers in the waters of the Great Bear Rainforest. A federally legislated oil tanker ban will respect coastal First Nations and provide binding legal protection to this coast and wild salmon economy.”

Not only did the Exxon Valdez oil spill cause immediate devastation—the loss of whales, otters, fish and seabirds— it continues to pollute.  The oil that couldn’t be removed from shorelines still persists, and is still toxic, an ongoing source of contamination implicated in the failure of Prince William Sound herring stocks to recover and the slow recovery of other impacted species.  Long term genetic damage from exposure to the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in crude oil may mean that some species never fully recover.

“We can expect a spill of dilbit to create similar, if not worse long-term impacts,” Wristen said.  “The potential for natural processes to gradually break down weathered bitumen is much lower than for other oils, meaning more of it will persist on shorelines and the ocean floor for longer periods.”

“Right now there are herring spawning along B.C.’s coast, providing food and livelihood to coastal communities. The loss of a fishery for even a few years can devastate a local economy and strike at the heart of coastal cultures,” said Vernon.


Contact Information

Karen Wristen, Living Oceans Society 604-788-5634 kwristen [at]
Caitlyn Vernon, Sierra Club BC 250.896.3500 caitlyn [at]