22 Dec 2012

Fuel Spills

Do science and outdoor sports go together for you? They do for me! I do a lot of thinking when out in my kayak. Sometimes the things I see when kayaking remind me of birdwatching and climate change science. But most recently, while out in my kayak I passed a floating plastic bag that might have blown off a boat, and a sunken tin pie pan that was probably frisbee-ed from shore. Seeing human trash reminded me of why I had to get to my computer and write this post. There have been a series of fuel spills locally, where I live in Saanich, part of Victoria.
You can read about one of the first recent spills in the Saanich News in their article appropriately titled "Oil spill stains urban miracle." It's on the front page, with a sub-heading "Catastrophe strikes Coho-laden creek." I hadn't thought of an urban creek being the subject of study for working biologists, but it is. And there are school visits to the creek as well, so that students can learn about Nature in their own home neighbourhood.
My friend John Herbert took this photo of Colquitz Creek. That's the salmon stream that we've written about here, the one that runs from Beaver Lake through Panama Flats to Portage Inlet.
This spill was from a home heating oil tank that leaked. It happened when a fuel delivery was made to the wrong address, and the wrong home's unused tank was filled with home heating oil. A pipe leading from the fuel tank sprung a leak, and over a few days released an estimated 1,000 litres of heating oil into Swan Creek, which drains into Colquitz Creek. Once the oily sheen on the stream was pointed out to Saanich municipal workers, they traced the fuel up to the source of the leak. Other leaks have since been traced back to other tanks.

These fuel tanks weren't mine or in my own neighbourhood, but I must have walked within a hundred yards of them several times before eating and relaxing at a nearby home of friends or family. That's it, for me. Not in my back yard. Not in my friends' and families' back yards. Accidents happen, but fuel tanks are owned by people who can look after them. No excuses. When I walked back from the beach, I put the kayak away and looked at my landlady's fuel tank. No visible leaks. Not in my yard.
I'm no fuel-servicing expert. I'm not a marine biologist, or a fresh-water biologist either, but I do get out on the water often in my kayak. Every small boat user interacts hands-on with the water in a personal way. We can understand the effects of fuel spills on waterways, effects that some people don't easily understand because they don't see the plants and animals like we do. Now I'm trying to put that understanding to use.
Another recent spill of home heating fuel into the watershed in Greater Victoria can be read about here at the Times-Colonist newspaper website. The Times-Colonist article noted that:
A fact sheet from the provincial Environment Ministry says homeowners are potentially liable for cleanup costs whether they are aware of the existence of an oil tank or not.
Scary thought, eh? And home insurance doesn't cover fuel spills. One of the recent cleanups cost the homeowners $35,000.
Apparently, an old fuel tank can go from "looks ok" to "leaking" pretty darned fast... even when it's been checked by an expert from the fuel oil company. As one homeowner with an unexpected leak said to the Saanich News:
We had a platinum protection plan where (our oil company) would do sonic testing of the tank to check the thickness of the walls. We were also using their oil that’s supposed to have additives in it that retards corrosion,” Keith says. “We were sort of relying on that plan, to some extent, to give us a head’s up if something was up. At the end of the day that didn’t help us out. We’re kicking ourselves now – it was an old tank, why didn’t we just replace it? For $2,000 we could’ve avoided a ton of grief.”

It seems that tank leaks can happen suddenly and aren't as obvious as the crack along the coaming in my second-hand Pamlico kayak from Wilderness Systems.
So I will remember the statements by experts in the local newspapers: twenty-year-old fuel tanks can and do fail suddenly. I don't have to be a fuel expert to help my landlady make a proper plan for the fuel tank at her house! That's practical science we can put to good use. With planning, this home heating system will never be the cause for an expensive and environmentally damaging spill.
We can't stop all the fuel spills in the world, but we can each look after our own equipment. And if you see any fuel spilled on the ground or water in BC, in town or out in the boonies, call the 24-Hour Spill Line toll-free at 1-800-663-3456.

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