Friday, November 26, 2010

AUDIT: Canadian Coast Guard unprepared to respond to oil spills (U.S. Coast Guard in same boat?)

Candian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St. Laurent.

Candian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St. Laurent.

OTTAWA — The Canadian Coast Guard lacks the training, equipment and management systems to fulfil its duties to respond to offshore pollution incidents such as oil spills, an internal audit reveals.
The audit paints a sobering picture of an agency that would play a key role in Canada's response to a major oil spill off the world's longest coastline. In the event of a spill leaking from a ship, as occurred in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground off the coast of Alaska, the Coast Guard would be the lead federal agency in the cleanup efforts.
However, the audit found that Coast Guard employees are trained on an "ad hoc, regional basis," with no national training strategy. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is relying on aging equipment — the operating status of which it is unable to track — and management controls are "either out-of-date, not functioning or not in place."
"As such, assurance cannot be provided that the conditions exist to enable (environmental-response) services to be provided in a national consistent manner," states the audit, which was completed just over a month before an explosion at BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico unleashed the biggest offshore oil spill in history this spring.
Under Canada's patchwork response regime, the lead agency would depend on the nature and location of a spill. Off the East Coast, joint federal-provincial petroleum boards would oversee the cleanup of a spill at a drilling rig, while the National Energy Board would handle that responsibility in Arctic waters. But the Coast Guard would take the lead in any spill from an oil tanker, or a "mystery spill" whose origin is unknown.
The Coast Guard's "environmental-response" unit deals with roughly 1,300 reported pollution incidents each year, despite having only about 80 staff and a modest budget of $9.8 million. The agency has 12 staffed depots, with equipment spread across the country at 70 additional locations.
The audit describes an agency that operates more like a loose alliance of regional offices than a national organization.
The audit team "found that there were no nationally consistent, detailed standard operating procedures, only regional operating procedures that are not approved by headquarters."
Internal auditors also found that information about incidents was not recorded in a manner that would allow for the review of incident responses.
The Coast Guard hasn't identified the level of knowledge, skills and tools required for all environmental-response staff, and the agency lacks a way to monitor what training has been received by staff.
Similar issues dog the Coast Guard's equipment-management system, leaving staff with no "current, reliable, up-to-date information on the operational status of equipment."
"The last major investment in equipment in the program was . . . in the 1990s. Since then, there has been no consistent, nationally co-ordinated investment in equipment. Equipment acquisitions are on a regional basis and based on the availability of funding throughout the year," the audit states.
One academic expert who has studied the Coast Guard says the agency has become a "political orphan" that, unlike the Canadian Forces, doesn't get much political or public support when lobbying for budget increases.
"The Coast Guard tends to be one of these organizations that is very professional in what they do, but because most people don't pay them any attention, they're always at the end of the line for any budget," said Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.
Huebert said the federal government should consider arming the Coast Guard with better spill-response tools, given the fact that offshore drilling and tanker traffic is expected to intensify in Canada's Arctic waters. Several oil companies have acquired licenses to explore for oil in Canada's portion of the Beaufort Sea, although drilling isn't expected to take place for at least a few years.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which is responsible for the Coast Guard, said the audit's recommendations have been "incorporated into the environmental response work plan.
"Work has started on many of the initiatives and we remain on target for completion," the spokeswoman said in a statement. The Coast Guard recently acquired 20 new "environmental response barges," she added.

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