ARCHIVED - Working Together - What Government and Other Agencies do if Canadian Arctic Waters are Threatened by a Spill

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Date: Ottawa, 2003
ISBN: 0-662-67571-1
QS- QS-Y215-000-EFHIII-A-A1

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Table of Contents


Government departments, along with various boards and agencies, are responsible for regulating the development of natural resources in the North in a way that does the least harm to the environment and to northerners' quality of life. Companies are once again interested in exploring for oil and gas in the Arctic. This booklet explains the role of agencies in responding to spills of harmful substances in Canadian Arctic waters.

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In the late 1980s, the Government of Canada, along with the governments of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories (which then included Nunavut), issued a Strategy for Major Pollution Incidents in the Arctic Seas Regions which described how agencies and people would work together if there was a major spill in Arctic offshore waters. Today, the agencies responsible for responding to spills continue to plan together and to conduct joint response exercises.

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Plans and Working Agreements

The northern agencies that work together to ensure spills are handled properly are the Canadian Coast Guard, the National Energy Board and the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Each agency has plans that describe how it will respond to a number of different situations. It is important that these plans take an integrated approach to avoid duplication or overlap, and to ensure that everyone works together when a spill occurs. The names of these plans, and contact information for the three agencies, appear in Appendix 1 (page 6).

Canada has also made a commitment to circumpolar environmental protection and is actively involved in the international efforts of the Arctic Council to prevent pollution and respond to spills into the Arctic Ocean.

The Northwest Territories/Nunavut Spills Working Agreement provides for a 24-hour spill reporting system, and a clearly understood division of responsibilities relating to the investigation and monitoring of spills in the two territories. (The Yukon has a similar arrangement.) This arrangement also provides for a system to disseminate information. The agreement designates a lead agency, depending on the specific legal and program responsibilities of the various agencies, their expertise, and the source of the spill. The division of responsibility for spills affecting Arctic waters is outlined below.


Spills from ships and barges

Spills from oil and gas exploration and production facilities

Spills from facilities/operations licensed under DIAND legislation


Canadian Coast Guard

National Energy Board

Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

For a spill into Arctic waters, the lead agency may call upon other agencies to provide assistance. Resource agencies can be approached directly for help on specific issues. For example, Environment Canada may help with weather forecasts and information on ice conditions, or Fisheries and Oceans may provide information on the location and possible impact on important fish and marine mammal species, such as beluga whale populations.

Environment Canada may also activate the Arctic Regional Environmental Emergencies Team (REET). The Arctic REET is an interagency committee that includes representatives from federal, territorial and Aboriginal organizations with environmental expertise. It is chaired by a representative of Environment Canada. The purpose of the REET is to provide consolidated environmental advice to the lead agency. The objective of the REET is to minimize damage to sensitive resources and habitats, while making the best use of limited response resources. The Arctic REET Contingency Plan describes the organizational framework, purpose, functions and composition of the team; the notification and activation procedures; and the classification and escalation of response to environmental emergencies. Contact information for all Arctic REET agencies, their respective team members and their alternates is attached to the plan. Resource agencies may provide essential services such as transportation, accommodation and communications.

How are we Protected Against Spills?

Laws have been developed to prevent spills of oil or other hazardous material into the Arctic environment.

These laws cover such things as:

  • what amounts of discharge of potential pollutants are illegal
  • how to report spills
  • what information is needed in a contingency plan
  • how to store and transport petroleum products and chemicals
  • what penalties may be imposed on a polluter
  • how to get back the costs of clean-up
  • how to transfer fuel at sea

Companies that operate barges, ships, fuel storage, or oil and gas facilities are the most likely to experience oil spills. These operators are licensed by a regulatory agency that ensures they have spill response plans in place.

These plans may include:

  • lists of spill response equipment available, where it is located and how the equipment will be operated
  • a list of people who will help to clean up a spill
  • a detailed plan of how to control and clean up a spill caused by the operator
  • staff training in spill prevention and response

What Happens When a Spill Occurs?

The general sequence of events would be:

  • The spill is discovered and reported to the appropriate 24-hour spill line and/or to NORDREG. (This is a vessel traffic reporting system for the Arctic Canada Traffic Zone.)
  • The appropriate lead agency is notified of the spill by the spill line operator.
  • The lead agency appoints an officer (generally an on-site inspector) to monitor the spill and deal directly with the polluter.
  • The polluter implements his spill response plan and provides updates to the monitoring officer who, in turn, keeps the other agencies informed about the clean-up.

The lead agency will then respond in one of the following three ways, depending on the adequacy of the polluter's response and the severity of the spill:

Level One Response – Monitoring
If the polluter is doing a good job of cleaning up the spill, he will be allowed to continue. The lead agency will investigate the incident and provide technical advice to the polluter, if required.

Level Two Response – Assistance
If the polluter is doing a good job cleaning up the spill but needs some help, the lead agency may provide help in the form of materials, equipment or labour on a cost recovery basis.

Level Three Response – Control
If the polluter is unable or unwilling to clean up the spill, or if the source of the spill is unknown, the lead agency will take complete control and direct the spill clean-up.

Fortunately, most spills are small and the people responsible (the polluters) clean them up right away. The lead agency monitoring officer provides advice and ensures that the spill is reported and cleaned up properly.

Appendix 1 - Lead Agency Spill Plans

Canadian Coast Guard (CCG)

Canadian Coast Guard Marine Spills Contingency Plan

The CCG is the lead agency for spills into Canadian waters from ships and barges, and spills that result from ship-to-shore oil transfers. For more information on this plan contact:

Canadian Coast Guard
Central and Arctic Region
201 North Front St. Suite 703
Sarnia, ON N7T 8B1
Telephone: (519) 383-1954
Fax: (519) 383-1991

National Energy Board (NEB)

National Energy Board Arctic Offshore Emergency Response Plan

The NEB is the lead agency for emergencies related to oil and gas exploration and production in frontier areas, such as Arctic waters. For more information on this plan contact:

National Energy Board
444-7th Ave. SW
Calgary, AB T2P 0X8
Telephone: (403) 292-4800
Fax: (403) 292-5503

Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND)

Northwest Territories Region Hazardous Material Spill Response Plan

DIAND responds to spills into Arctic waters from facilities or operations that it has licenced. For more information on this plan contact:

Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development
P.O. Box 1500
Yellowknife, NT X1A 2R3
Telephone: (867) 669-2657
Fax: (867) 669-2716

Appendix 2 - Resource Agencies

When a spill occurs in Arctic waters, the lead agency takes action to ensure there is a proper response to the incident. In some cases, the lead agency will need assistance from other agencies to do its job effectively. Resource agencies available to provide support include:

Government of the Northwest Territories
Government of the Yukon
Inuvialuit Regional Corporation
Inuvialuit Game Council
Department of National Defence
Department of Fisheries and Oceans
Environment Canada
Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness
Royal Canadian Mounted Police
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
Department of Public Works and Government Services
Transport Canada
Health Canada
Justice Canada

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