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Expired · 19th January 2011
Ray Grigg
Despite the sophistication of our modern technology and the precautionary assurances provided by investors, corporations and governments that their industrial enterprises will be environmentally safe, no one can eliminate the human factor. People do foolish, injudicious and reckless things, even though common sense, ordinary caution and stringent regulations advise them otherwise. Consider the recent example of the STX Daisy (Globe & Mail, Nov.3/10).

The Daisy, a 182 metre freighter of 18,538 tonnes, was bound from China to Washington state with a load of fuel oil when it was intercepted by the US Coast Guard at 4am in Juan de Fuca Strait for a routine spot check. Not only did the Coast Guard find a disorganized and dishevelled crew, they found a captain who could barely provide the ship's documents and logs. They also found that Captain Seong Ug Sin, a South Korean national, was drunk. Two breathalyzer tests measured his blood-alcohol level at 0.102 and 0.108. (The legal limit for operating a vessel in US waters is 0.04 and for operating a motor vehicle in BC is 0.05.)

Not only was the concentration of alcohol in the captain's blood more than twice the permissible level for safe operation of a vessel – he and his crew had all been drinking large quantities of beer, whiskey, chocolate liqueur and a 40-proof Korean drink called soju – but the ship had no detailed charts of the 330 km of Puget Sound waters it was intending to navigate. For a journey through waters "characterized by narrow channels and strong currents", on a destination that required it to cross six ferry routes, pass beneath the Tacoma Narrow Bridge and manoeuvre through areas of high shipping and recreational boat use, the Daisy had a rough black-and-white faxed map, a crew of questionable competence and a drunken captain.

Sound familiar? Wasn't Captain Joseph Hazelwood of the Exxon Valdez also drunk when his vessel wandered onto Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989, spilling an estimated 300,000 barrels of crude into the pristine waters. Based on a blood-alcohol test of 0.061 eleven hours after the grounding, officials estimate his blood-alcohol level at the time of the incident was 0.22. Not only did this event have catastrophic effects on the local ecology, it inflicted massive psychological agony on Alaskans, destroyed a traditional way of life and ruined the area's economy.

A Chinese freighter, the Shen Neng 1, recently grounded on Douglas Shoal in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, leaking oil into those precious waters. The captain and first officer were arrested for presumably trying to take an illegal shortcut through a channel of this natural wonder of the world.

For another example, consider BP's April, 2010, oil blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico. It dwarfed the Exxon Valdez disaster by a factor of about 10. The worst spill in US history has been blamed on a multitude of human failings: disregarded safety procedures, poor equipment maintenance, non-response to warning indicators of impending well-head failure, inadequate enforcement of regulations, widespread conflict of interest factors, the use of substandard cement, and maximizing environmental risks in the interest of economic savings.

The most well-intentioned regulations and controls don't stop people from doing foolish things. When pipelines are corroding or needing other maintenance, who decides if or when the costly repairs will be done? A pipeline ruptured in Alaska after corporate executives decided the cost of cleaning up the spill would be less expensive than the cost of preventative repairs ‹ using, of course, their measure of cost. Indeed, pipeline spills are daily rather than exceptional events. Aside from engineering mistakes and oversights, many pipeline spills are simply linked to the financial imperative of returning maximum profits to corporate shareholders. Money is a frequent incentive to take risks that ordinary prudence would deem unwise.

The one certain attribute of human foolishness is its reliability. Drill enough oil wells, build enough pipelines, sail enough supertankers and someone somewhere is guaranteed to do something foolish. Failsafe measures are never failsafe. Foolproof is never foolproof. And, unfortunately, the fools are likely to be distributed equally from the highest executive levels to the lowest worker categories. "A fool throws a pebble into the ocean," notes an ancient Chinese aphorism, "and a thousand wise men cannot retrieve it."

This is the kind of cautionary realism we need to confront when anyone anywhere is planning any industrial development or activity. Think beyond the drilling, recovery and shipping of oil and gas. Include the tar sands, coal mining, salmon farming and even such generic activities as industrialization and consumerism. Our planet cannot afford to lose any more ecological value as a sacrifice to corporate profits or even national economic benefits. Historically, our propensity has been to favour material progress over environmental precaution. This irrational optimism is leading to catastrophic consequences.

Environmental concerns about Enbridge's 1,172 km Northern Gateway Pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat are legitimate. Worries about supertankers plying the complex and hazardous coastal waters of British Columbia are real. The issue is not "if" an oil spill could occur but "when". The human factor will make the possibility an inevitability. Any normal combination of bad weather, equipment failure or electronic malfunction provides more than enough risk. Add the indiscretion of a captain and crew like those on the STX Daisy and an environmental tragedy is a certainty. Not even the poetic and bucolic name of a ship called Daisy could erase the devastating consequences.