Oil spill detection goes high-tech with aerial crew

Environmentalists worry the projected tanker traffic increase if two major B.C. pipeline projects are approved means the response to oil spills flagged by a high-tech aerial team will be inadequate.

The Marine Aerial Reconnaissance Team (MART), a joint project of Environment Canada and Transport Canada, has been using sensors in a high-tech aircraft to spot oil spills along B.C.’s rugged coastline for six years.

The team covers the coastline about two or three times per week.

But with tanker traffic along B.C.'s coastline projected to quadruple if the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and Kinder-Morgan pipeline expansion are approved, some worry there aren’t enough resources in place to respond when spills are flagged.

"The resources for oil spill cleanup are some really talented people, some very hard-working people who could not possibly hope to protect this entire coast from what it’s already facing — much less a massive increase in volume or number of ships," says Jay Ritchlin with the David Suzuki Foundation.

While MART is tasked with spotting spills, notification about them passes from the coast guard to a small flotilla of mostly commercial clean-up vessels funded by the major oil companies and centered in larger ports.

The team recently spotted a 100-metre slick in B.C.’s Georgia Strait.

Circling in their bright red patrol aircraft, specialists on board determined the spill below was caused by just four litres of fuel.

"It's just a bit of a shock when you see that," said Bob Whitaker with MART.

"You think that it's gonna be thousands of litres or something when it's less than four litres … doing all that damage."