Accidents happen. We are all keenly aware of this as we learn the details of the second ship accident on the St. Lawrence River in less than two weeks.
River communities breathed a sigh of relief last week after the Algobay, a ship that ran aground on July 4 at Superior Shoals, was successfully refloated with no damage to the river. But, less than two weeks later, we're hearing news that the CSL Richelieu ran aground approaching the St. Catherine locks, just upriver of Montreal. Unfortunately, the Richelieu appears to have pierced its fuel tank, dumping tons of heavy bunker fuel into the river.
We're fortunate that it's been 34 years since a major spill on the river, but we've come too close for comfort too many times over the years. Last fall the CSL Assiniboine ran around, taking nearly a week and three tugs to pull it free. In 2004, the barge Salvor broke free of its tug, running aground in front of Boldt Castle, piercing its hold and spilling sodium chloride. The list goes on — the Toro, the Golden Eye and the Spar Opal in 2006, the CSL Niagara in 2005.
Given the history of groundings on the river combined with the intense national focus on response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, you would think that when the St. Lawrence Seaway Corp. sat down earlier this summer to prepare for a routine spill drill, they would have pulled out all the stops and taken the opportunity to get serious about spill preparedness.
Instead, the Seaway chose to do the minimum required, spending only an hour-and-a-half talking through two possible disaster scenarios and deploying a grand total of 50 feet of boom in the river.
Agency representatives have said to me why worry because we don't have deep-sea drilling wells here andships carrying hazardous materials are now double-hulled. (That is one of the few good things to come out of the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill).
But, I can't help but think about how we've all watched in awe as ships snake through the American Narrows and squeeze past the Thousand Island Bridge. I can't help but think about the Algobay, which was carrying 14,500 gallons of diesel and 173,000 gallons of bunker fuel in its tanks when it went aground. I can't help but think about this scenario in March with thick ice on the river rendering the few response assets we have unusable. Scenarios like these keep me awake a night. And it should keep the Seaway awake at night too.
The St. Lawrence River is part of one of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems. The Thousand Islands are a national and international treasure. Can't we do better than spending an hour-and-a-half in a conference room and deploying 50 feet of boom every few years? I would argue that we must do better.
A good, easy place to start is by stopping shipping in ice. No technology exists to effectively and safely respond to a spill or accident in ice conditions. The Seaway keeps assuring us "don't worry, it'll never happened here," but that claim rings a little hollow these days.
Spill response drills along the river must become as standard as school fire drills. Schools in New York are required to do 12 drills per year, spread throughout the year and school day, ensuring a full testing of the system in varied scenarios. Any school administrator will tell you that a school evacuation at lunchtime on a warm spring day is quite different than one early on a bitter north country morning.
Although arguably more complex, spill response drills along the river must follow this model and become frequent, testing real-world scenarios and weather, not best case scenarios or wishful thinking.
Whether agencies like to admit it or not, accidents happen, mistakes can be made, and the worst can happen. It's a travesty that we still do not have a world-class response system in place to protect the world-class resource that is the St. Lawrence River. But it's not too late to start.
Jennifer J. Caddick is exeuctive director of Save the River.