By K. Joseph Spears and Darryl Anderson

The March 4 chemical fire at DP World’s Centerm container terminal in Port Metro Vancouver, which burned for over 24 hours, highlights one marine risk in Canada’s largest port adjacent to a large urban area. The port fire showed that marine response is always local.

Marine transport of dangerous goods is regulated by the International Maritime Organization’s International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code. This regime is based on an honour system that requires shippers to provide detailed information on what cargo is contained in the shipping container. The 20-foot container in question was on an international ocean voyage from China to Eastern Canada by ship, rail, and truck transport. The product was a hazardous organic compound used as an industrial disinfectant called trichloroisocyanuric acid. The resulting chemical fire created a toxic plume of smoke over a large section of East Vancouver.

Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services, working in conjunction with other first responders, the private sector, and Port Metro Vancouver, did a tremendous job in extinguishing the fire. Clearly the ongoing training in the port of Vancouver for marine response for hazardous and dangerous goods commonly known as HNS paid off in this case.

Robust marine response is a team sport. The complexity of an incident involving a single 20-foot container could have been much more severe depending on the volume of cargo, cargo mix, location of the incident, and capacity of first responders and weather conditions.

While Premier Christy Clark has called for a “world-class response” for possible marine pollution arising from proposed energy exports, the March 4 incident clearly shows a requirement for world-class response to the present movement of bulk and packaged hazardous and noxious cargoes in the port.

Port Metro Vancouver, Canada’s largest port, handles $187 billion of cargo each year with a significant volume of dangerous cargoes. However, dangerous goods information is not shared in advance with first responders by Transport Canada or Port Metro Vancouver. Municipal or local government first responders only learn about the nature of the shipment when responding to 911 incidents in real time.

While the regulation of dangerous cargoes across all modes of transportation is governed by Transport Canada, there is a clear benefit to having a robust and resilient response capability at the local level. We saw that in action with Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.

To maintain this world-class response, we need sustained funding for public safety, and need training, exercises, and more importantly, advance notice of dangerous cargoes so that first responders around the port and transport corridor communities can be more aware of these situations and take planning and response management in advance.

On a related subject, there have been three oil tanker car derailments in the past month in Ontario. Similar rail cargoes move daily through the port of Vancouver. We need to be ready for these incidents. The time of an incident responding to a 911 call is not the time to be making friends or learning about the nature of the hazardous cargo.

The port is an integral part of Vancouver’s and Canada’s economy, and we need to invest in training and the response capability across all levels of government. Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services gave Vancouverites a glimpse of what world-class response looks like at a container terminal.

World-class response requires leadership at the governance level, especially the federal government which is the lead regulator on hazardous and dangerous goods. If the government of Canada does not take up this leadership role, then it is up to the province and municipal leaders to step into this void. It also requires sustained funding for equipment and training and exercises for first responders.

World-class response also means looking for gaps and weaknesses and building on these findings in a full and frank discussion so that we are ready to respond to future marine incidents. As a country and as a city, we should not be afraid to ask the difficult questions. The history of marine response and regulation has been based on a foundation of past marine incidents and we need to enhance our response capability and alerting procedures for Vancouver’s citizens. World-class means the ability to look at incidents in a critical fashion. We will be a stronger city and country for it.

In the aftermath of this incident, we need to undertake an independent “truth to power” and critical discussion to look at all the lessons that can be learned. These lessons can be incorporated into procedures so that future marine response and communications can be improved.

K. Joseph Spears is a principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group and has a long-standing operational, policy, and training background in marine response. Darryl Anderson is the managing director of WavePoint Consulting Ltd. and a transportation consultant and a former Port executive.