These sentences about Vancouver toxic crude spill begin with I, but this story is about all of us. It is about the voices raised to save this coast, and continued dissolution with government.
February 19, 2013
Vancouver Coast Salish Territories-Kitsilano Coast Guard closes, despite community outcry to the federal government, deep criticism from municipal and federal governments. Vancouver, the busiest port in the country is left under-resourced.
April 8, 2015, 5:00 p.m.
The sun is shining and my roommate and I are out for a run. It’s his birthday. I hadn’t run for a long time, my lungs and legs were burning, exhausted. Jogging along False Creek, in the unseasonable warmth of the sun, I can feel the rhythm and the strain of strength. We stop, short on breath, to watch a sea lion and build towers out of rocks, talking about how beautiful and surreal our city is. We talk about how little fresh air there is, and how we want to run along trails instead of asphalt. We talk about how busy our running route is, and that we’ve literally seen thousands of people out playing, brought out by the sun. We admire a sea lion in the water, and teams of paddlers, hearing the splash of paddles led by “Pull! Pull!” being called across the water.
We toy with the idea of skinny-dipping in False Creek, but both agree the water is likely too toxic, that we shouldn’t swim — even though we want to.
At the time, I did not realize that this would become a new reality for all of the beaches that I love on this coast. I did not realize, that at this very moment, 5:00 p.m., a grain tanker was leaking vast amounts toxic crude into the waters of the Salish Sea. I could not have realized, because no one was told. The Province and the Canadian Federal Governments hear about the spill at 5:00 p.m. There was no press release. The City was not notified.
April 9, 2015 8:00 a.m.
I wake up to news that there is an oil spill in English Bay. I call a friend, she’s crying, anxious about all the life on our coast and says she has no idea how big the spill is, or what is being done to clean it up. I agree to meet her on the beach. Walking to the shore, I see environmental activists standing and looking over the water. One walks me to the rocks to show the way in which oil has covered the rocks, and at first I can’t see it. On the sand, it’s hard to see.
Scraping my foot through the sand I realize that there is a thick layer of black oil just under the surface of the light sand. Once you see it, you see it everywhere. I talk to Dr. Peter Ross, a famous scientist laid off by the Canadian federal government as he takes samples of the oil with the Vancouver Aquarium. I feel a headache forming, and start to feel brutally nauseous. My friend Yassie and I agree that we should get off the beach, we feel strange. Waves of emotion register as I walk between the rocks and see that there are sticky globs of oil all over them, in lines where the water had reached.
Audrey from the Musqueam Nation is on the shore, and we offer cedar to heal the water. This moment, holding cedar and praying for the first time to heal the coast from this spill, is when it all sinks in. The crumbling feeling of understanding that no one is cleaning this up. That no one will be able to take this spill back, and that this coast and these creatures will be poisoned.
April 9, 2015
I return to the beach and stumble upon one of the most surreal scenes I had yet seen in my young life. People, people everywhere, unaware that there had been a spill. Summer weather upon us, hundreds were on the beach, running along the seawall. My roommates and I interview the public, asking them if they heard that there was an oil spill. Most that we waved down said that they hadn’t, others say that they had heard of it, but weren’t sure where it was. Kids, dogs, people laying in the sand, playing in the water. No signs, no tape, no evidence that there is a spill other than a splitting headache. No evidence of a spill other than shiny stinky globules of oil coating the rocks.
People in shorts and sandals scrubbing at the oil covering everything. Distraught at the lack of attention that the government has had towards this spill, these civilians have taken cleaning up the spill into their own hands. The city dropped off gloves (permeable by chemicals) and a bin with which to dispose of rags. A park ranger comes up and asks where people are putting the waste, and the community responds with outrage that they are the ones on the beach, telling him he needs to get a professional crew. The
sun is setting as we talk to those cleaning, they complain of being covered in oil, in feeling it burn their lungs and noses.
Heading home, we research into the night, I realize that what we’re looking at has astounding legal ramifications. All of those cleaning up likely didn’t know the following about the crude and the fumes that was burning them:
Suspected of damaging fertility or the unborn child
May cause damage to organs or organ systems through prolonged or repeated
May cause cancer
My roommate has a burning sensation that moves throughout his body, he likens it to an internal sunburn. He showers multiple times. He rubs aloe and shea on his skin to no avail. He washes all of his clothes, but we are unsure as to whether or not to dispose of them.
April 10, 2015
I went to check up on the government reported clean-up. What I saw was terrifying, when thinking of the future of this coast. Clean-up professionals are pacing up and down in the beach with janitor pincers picking up seaweed, without respirators or masks. I watched them move up and down the beach, without cleaning any oil from the rocks or the sand.
There is no caution tape. I see a sand sculpture built by children in an oil-covered area. A lanky blue heron, eating a dead fish in oily water. And I feel another splitting headache set in. I posted twenty five laminated posters along the beach saying to stay away from the spill, nailing them places that I thought everyday folks might walk down to the water.
April 11 2015:
There is still no caution tape. The signs that I have posted are mysteriously absent. A rally and march has led many activists here, and once again I feel a growing nausea. We film on the beach, and brush some of the sand on accident. We feel stupid for being at English Bay again without respirators, but no major media is covering what’s actually happening and we can’t afford respirators. My roommate’s hand goes numb, and my feet and fingers feel like stinging nettles had brushed them.
Later, we feel sick. We each take salt baths with sudsy dish soap, which makes all of the places we touched burn for a few moments, and then feel better. His hands are red, and I have patches on my legs. My nose and lungs feel raw.
We call the provincial poison control line, asking if there is anything that we can do. The person working the line sounded worried while my roommate was describing his symptoms, and put him on hold to talk to their manager. Coming back to the line, they said that there was nothing that we could do, that many people had called in after being in the water and in the sand, and that his symptoms would dissipate in time. They told us to go to a physician, but strayed away when asked about long term effects.
April 12, 2015
More animals are showing up on shore covered in crude. The spill has reached different areas of our coast line- it is still spreading. The social media from all levels of government are assuring the public that the spill is being handled. Quietly, effectively. This, simply, is not true.
On the next sunny day there will be children playing in these contaminated waters. Audrey is now having whole body fevers, a bloody nose, dizziness, and throat problems.
Mary Lovell is a writer, artist, activist, political organizer, and environmental campaigner living in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish territories.