On May 22 and 23, 2019, an international oil spill response exercise between Canadian and American organizations took place on the waters off Vancouver Island. We spoke to Michael Lowry from Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) to find out more about what took place.

Describe for us what took place during the international oil spill response exercise. 

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Canadian Coast Guard held an oil spill response drill in the contiguous waters of British Columbia, Canada and the United States in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The drill included aerial assets and vessels, with the first day taking place on the American side of the water, and the second day on the Canadian side.

The purpose of the drill was to test the activation process for the Canada-United States Joint Marine Pollution Contingency Plan, Pacific Annex (CANUSPAC Annex) and to test moving response assets and personnel across the US/Canadian border. The CANUSPAC Annex is a proactive response plan designed in preparation for the possibility of incidents requiring international response.

Pollution response crews with cleanup equipment from both nations took part in the drill, along with cooperating oil spill response organizations – WCMRC, Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) and National Response Corporation (NRC) – as well as federal and state agencies, including Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Washington Department of Ecology.

How many people and organizations participated in the drill and why is it important to hold events like this? 

More than 160 response personnel were involved in the exercise, along with close to 20 vessels, one Canadian Coast Guard helicopter, one Transport Canada National Aerial Surveillance Program plane and a WCMRC drone. Also involved was the Atlantic Raven, one of the Coast Guard’s new emergency towing vessels. In its first spill response exercise, the Atlantic Raven practiced deploying boom during the drill. 

Joint spill response exercises are important because thousands of commercial vessels transit the Salish Sea in designated international shipping lanes every year. A spill in these lanes would likely impact the waters of both countries, so practicing a coordinated response is crucial.

What were the main goals of the emergency response exercise? 

There were three main goals of the exercise: To mobilize an International Task Force to identify, contain, recover and store simulated oil in the unsheltered waters between Port Angeles and Victoria; to test the draft CANUSPAC Tactical Communications Plans across all response partners; and to test the transfer of personnel and equipment across the US/Canadian border.

What were a few of the important lessons learned during the exercise?

The exercise provided an opportunity to familiarize crews with vessels and equipment, which is important because new vessels are continually added to the fleets. It was also a great chance to pre-establish communication protocols and gain experience working with both sheltered and unsheltered booms, which are both very important in advance of an incident.

The drill was organized by the Canada-United States Joint Marine Pollution Contingency Plan, Pacific Annex (CANUSPAC Annex). What is the purpose of this organization and how do response exercises like this help achieve those goals? 

Canada and the US have been working in close cooperation on preparedness and response for cross-boundary spills since the 1970s. A Canada-U.S. Joint Marine Pollution Contingency Plan was formalized in 2003, and joint exercises occur regularly to test the system. It’s also important to note that Canada collaborates on spill response planning with other Arctic Council countries.