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Opinion: Valdez spurred tougher safety laws

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Opinion: Valdez spurred tougher safety laws

Revolution: Today’s shipping standards are vastly better

Written by Stephen Brown for The Vancouver Sun, March 25, 2014

Think of all the improvements in safety in your home or workplace or in the car you drive that have occurred over the last 25 years. A technological revolution has equally been felt in shipping, and measurable benefits in safety have been dramatic.

On this 25th anniversary of the grounding and subsequent loss of oil cargo from the Exxon Valdez, it’s instructive to take a hard look at shipping today, its safety standards, preparedness systems and vastly improved record of performance.

First, the Valdez spill motivated U.S. Congress to push for far more stringent laws, and the year after the event the U.S. signed into law the Ocean Pollution Act of 1990 that, among other things, required all tankers to adopt double-hull construction. That move alone, which has now become the international standard, would have greatly reduced the impact of the Valdez on the marine environment. But much more has happened to enhance safety.

Next, and arguably even more important in terms of on-board technology, the evolution of geographic positioning systems (GPS) has ensured that precision navigation is the new norm. While radar was available to the Valdez and other vessels of the day, any modern shipmaster will tell you that nothing compares to GPS for real-time accurate information upon which to base navigational decisions.

Other technical innovations developed since the Valdez spill include Electronic Chart Display Information Systems, which are now mandatory equipment on a ship’s bridge and which have become another invaluable tool in raising the bar on safety.

Furthermore, all relevant navigational information is duplicated in Personal Pilotage Units, individually carried by all BC Coastal and Fraser River pilots which in combination with enhanced radar detection capability, communications technology and real-time weather forecasting data combine to provide the mariner with a modern ship’s bridge that is unrecognizable in comparison to the situation 25 years ago.

In addition, pre-vetting of tankers that are destined for Canadian ports will translate to scrutiny of a vessel’s entire life history at a level of detail that was not considered 25 years ago. This will ensure charterers have the information required to ensure only vessels with a proven and unblemished record of maintenance and safety frequent the waters of British Columbia.

Beyond this, Transport Canada has committed that every tanker visiting a Canadian port will, at least annually, be subjected to thorough physical inspection known as “Port State Control.” Under this protocol a vessel can be detained for any infraction that might impact safe operational standards.

On the policy front, many who have watched the discussion around tankers and B.C.’s west coast will be aware a federally mandated Tanker Safety Panel announced in March 2013 has made 45 recommendations to the federal government with a view to further enhancing Canada’s “Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime.” One major recommendation that will result in expanded preparedness is that of a risk-based “Area Response Planning Model” rather than a one-size-fits-all solution on our coastline.

These recommendations are moving ahead under the stewardship of the federal Minister of Transport as Canada builds a truly world-class regime of marine safety and preparedness.

On a personal note, we have heard all manner of inaccurate commentary related to navigation on our north coast and, in particular in the Douglas Channel. As someone who has personally navigated this channel on several occasions on deep sea vessels, I can tell you it is a well-proven, deepwater route 1,575 metres across at its narrowest point and is perfectly safe for tanker transits, in ballast or loaded condition.

As professional mariners we are acutely aware that attention to safe navigation is the cornerstone of our profession, no matter where in the world we may find ourselves. What motivates us is our collective professional pride in getting things right.

Shipping in B.C. is as highly regulated as the aviation industry in terms of safety and security standards, right down to mandatory recordings of every bridge conversation, command and movement of the vessel.

B.C.’s north and mid-coasts are spectacular regions of the province that have long been associated with safe and reliable shipping. The technological revolution of the past 25 years and a deep commitment to incident preparedness have vastly improved that safety and reliability — an achievement we are very proud of.

Capt. Stephen Brown is president of the Chamber of Shipping of British Columbia.

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