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International environmental watchdog wants probe into shipping pollution enforcement

Investigators with an international environmental watchdog have recommended a probe into whether Canada is violating its own laws by not stopping toxic wastewater from being dumped into the ocean along its Pacific coast.

The investigative arm of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, created by the U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade agreement, has concluded there’s evidence Canada is failing to stop the release of millions of tonnes of contaminated water from fuel scrubbers, despite laws that are supposed to prevent it.

“Initiating an investigation into Canada’s non-enforcement of its domestic environmental laws would help to prevent further harm to these sensitive ecosystems, while also addressing unfair competition that favours commercial operators in Canadian waters,” the body says in a document released this week.

The concern stems from sea water used to wash scrubbers, devices that remove acids, heavy metals and carcinogens from engine exhaust. Those chemicals end up in the wash water, which is then dumped into the ocean.

“Scrubbers transfer pollution from the air to the water,” said Anna Barford, a campaigner with the environmental group Stand.earth, which brought the complaint to the commission.

Environment Canada says scrubbers were rare until new international shipping regulations restricted the use of high-sulphur fuel. Its data shows that between 2019 and 2022, the number of ships using them in Canadian waters increased fourfold.

Environment Canada calculates that in 2022, 88 millions tonnes of wash water went overboard along the British Columbia coast. That contained 26 tonnes of heavy metals and 226 kilograms of carcinogenic hydrocarbons.

About 42 per cent came from cruise ships, with commercial shipping dumping the rest.

Scientists have found wash water chemicals kill plankton at the base of the food web, acidifies sea water, reduces its ability to absorb climate-changing carbon dioxide and accumulates in the flesh of aquatic animals.

Estimates say 10 per cent of those discharges occur in endangered killer whale habitat. A 2020 study done for the Port of Vancouver suggests that parts of Burrard Inlet and Port Moody may already have concentrations of wash water contaminants that exceed guidelines for the protection of aquatic life.

“When you look at the total, this is an astounding amount of pollution,” Barford said. “We’ve been trying to get Transport Canada’s attention on this for a while now.”

Canada has laws against dumping harmful materials into fish habitat that cover both fresh and salt water.

In documents submitted to the commission, the federal government said it’s aware of the problem and is enforcing its laws.

“Canada recognizes that the use of scrubbers in Canadian and international waters has increased rapidly in recent years, raising the importance of better understanding the impacts of scrubbers on air and water quality,” it said.

“Canada has been working to assess the potential impacts.”

In 2023-24, it says officials inspected wash water discharge on 14 ships, although no charges or fines have yet been laid. It has had 26 successful prosecutions since 2014, although none have involved wash water.

“There’s a lack of enforcement,” Barford said.

“The government pointed to a number of enforcement issues that don’t address ongoing systemic pollution. Scrubbers are business as usual, and business as usual means a lot of pollution.”

Jurisdictions such as California and Denmark have already banned wash water discharge, she said.

The recommendation for an investigation now goes before the commission’s governing body — a three-member group with one representative from each country. A two-thirds majority is required to begin the probe.

“(It’s) essentially like an investigative report,” said commission spokeswoman Caitlin McCoy.

Investigators can request information from the government and conduct its own research and site visits. A decision on whether to launch an investigation is supposed to take 60 business days, with a full report 120 days after that.

The report is to be released publicly. The commission can then make recommendations to resolve problems.

Barford said her group went to the council to try to get more transparency from the government about how it’s addressing wash water pollution. She said the real answer to the problem is to require shippers to use low-sulphur fuel and close the loophole that allows them to use scrubbers.

“Pollution doesn’t just come from an oil spill or accident. We could be using cleaner fuels.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2024.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press