Port Metro Vancouver Fire
The recent chemical fire at DP World’s Centerm container terminal in Port Metro Vancouver on March 4, 2015, which burned for over 24 hours, highlights the risks associated with the marine transportation of goods in Canada’s largest port. The fire also showed citizens that all marine response is local. While the regulation of the marine transport of dangerous goods is regulated by the International Maritime Organization’s IMDG Code, it is based on an honor system which requires shippers to provide detailed information on what is carried inside containers. That information is not shared in advance with first responders by transport Canada or port Metro Vancouver. First responders only learn about this when responding to 911 incidents in real time.
Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, working in conjunction with other first responders, the private sector and Port Metro Vancouver, did an awesome job in extinguishing the fire that gave rise to a plume of toxic smoke from a 20-foot container containing trichloroisocyanuric acid, a hazardous organic compound that can be used as an industrial disinfectant, which fuelled the fire at the container terminal. The cargo was on an international voyage from China to Eastern Canada with a portion by rail and also truck.
Clearly, the ongoing training in the port of Vancouver for marine response for hazardous and dangerous goods commonly known as HNS paid off in this case. Marine response is a team sport and the complexity of this incident involving just a 20-foot container could have been much more severe, especially if this had occurred on the vessel and the crew had abandoned ship, and/or other dangerous commodities had been ignited which could have developed into a serious long-term fire releasing gaseous fumes that could have been very hazardous to the public.
While Premier Christy Clark has called for a “worldclass response” to possible marine pollution arising from proposed energy exports, the March 4 incident clearly shows a requirement for world-class response to the present movement of bulk and packaged HNS cargoes moving in the port. Port Metro Vancouver, Canada’s largest port, handles over $187 billion of cargo each year, with a large percentage of dangerous cargoes. While the regulation of dangerous cargoes across all modes of transportation is governed by the government of Canada’s Transport Canada, there is a clear need for a robust and resilient response capability at the local level. We saw that in action with Vancouver Fire Rescue Services.
To maintain this world-class response, we need sustained funding for public safety and the need for exercises training and, more importantly, advance notice of dangerous cargoes so that first responders around the port can be aware of these situations and take planning and response management in advance. This incident is a wake-up call to ensure that Vancouver has the ability to respond to these incidents. We’ve seen in northern Ontario that there have been three oil by rail derailments in a month. Similar cargoes are moving through the Port of Vancouver, and we need to be ready for these incidents. It is not the time to learn the nature of a cargo while responding to a 911 call.
In the aftermath of this incident, whose response was world-class, we need to undertake a truth to power discussion to look at all the lessons that can be learned. The best way to do this is via a third-party independent review, so that response can be improved and communications and issues can be addressed before the next incident.
The Port of Vancouver is an integral part of Vancouver and Canada’s economy, and we need to invest in training and the response capability across all levels of government.
Vancouver’s Fire Rescue Services gave Vancouverites a glimpse of what world-class looks like at the at the burning container face. World-class response also requires leadership at the governance level, especially the federal government, which is the lead regulator on hazardous and dangerous goods. If the government of Canada doesn’t take this role, then it’s up to the province and municipal leaders to step into this void. This requires sustained funding for equipment and training and exercises.
World-class response also means looking at the gaps and weaknesses and building on these findings in a full and frank discussion so that we are ready to respond to future marine incidents. As a country and as a city, we should not be afraid to ask the difficult questions. The history of marine response and regulation has been based on a foundation of past marine incidents, and we need to enhance our response capability and alerting procedures. World-class means the ability to look at incidents in a critical fashion. We will be a better port and country for it. The March 4, 2015 port fire is a wake-up call, and a call to action.