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Hazardous spills increasing, B.C. not prepared or transparent

Auditor-general: B.C. lacks up-to-date major spill response plan, failing to keep people informed

The number of B.C. spills involving gasoline, diesel, and other hazardous substances are trending upward and plans to respond to a major spill are out of date.

Meanwhile, the provincial ministry responsible for preparing and responding to spills has also “consistently” failed to notify First Nations communities of high-risk incidents.

These findings appear in a new report by Auditor-General Michael Pickup after an audit of Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy management of hazardous spills.

Pickup’s report shows spills have been “generally increasing since 2018” with 2021-22 being a recent peak with 5,306. While the number dropped to 4,889 in 2022-23, that figure was higher than in 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21.

The audit — conducted of the Environmental Emergency Program between Nov. 2020 and June 2023 — also found the ministry “did not have a current provincial-level plan for responding to a major spill.” It notes that the province has two response plans in case of a major spill, but each was created in 2023 and both need updating.

On top of its failure to consistently notify First Nations, the report also found that the ministry had left legislators in the dark about the effectiveness of the spill response regime, by failing to meet legal reporting requirements.

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The audit also found that ministry staff had not done enough to make polluters pay. Looking at the period between April 2016 and February 2023, ministerial staff had recovered about $900,000 in related costs with about $13.9 million outstanding.

“As the deficiencies identified in the audit were in key areas impacting the ministry’s overall management of hazardous spills, we concluded that the ministry had not effectively managed hazardous spills,” it reads.

Pickup’s report includes nine recommendations with the ministry having accepted all of them.

“The ministry recognizes the importance of having a current provincial hazardous material response plan,” it reads. The ministry added that the plan will align with revisions to the Emergency and Disaster Management Act.

Environment Minister George Heyman acknowledged in a statement that “improvements…can be made in our systems and our frameworks to ensure greater effectiveness,” adding his ministry has already taken concrete steps.

“The safety of British Columbians and the preservation of public health and our environment are paramount,” he said. “We take the auditor general’s findings very seriously. We thank them for their work and we are fully committed to continue to implement the recommendations as soon as possible.”