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Gorge oil spill shows need to get rid of fossil-fuel heating: Songhees environment director

There was still a visible sheen on the water around the Admirals Road bridge Monday, but it was coming from “a deceivingly small amount” of oil. 
Kirk Stinchcombe, Songhees director of land and environment, surveys the site of a oil spill site on Middle Road on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The latest oil spill from a residential tank into the Gorge Waterway is a signal that people should be looking at other ways to heat their homes, says the Songhees Nation’s director of land and environment.

Kirk Stinchcombe noted that similar spills have occurred around the region for many years.

“I think the underlying ­message to people is it’s time to think about getting rid of these fossil-fuel-based heating ­systems and moving into something more sustainable,” said Stinchcombe, who is part of the Songhees team that responds to spills.

An estimated 300 to 350 litres of oil is believed to have spilled from a pin-hole leak in a home tank on Songhees Nation land just after it was refilled. The oil made its way to the Gorge through an outfall.

The exact location of the defective tank was found by sending a crew of six people door-to-door in the vicinity of the spill, Stinchcombe said.

Along with the Township of Esquimalt, the District of Saanich, the Ministry of Environment and the View Royal Fire Department are all part of the response, and a company has been brought in to advise on any steps needed for remediation, Stinchcombe said.

He said the Songhees Nation will do whatever it can to protect the Gorge. “The Songhees community’s ancestors have been using that waterway for generations,” he said.

“It’s a very important place culturally and historically, so we’re taking this very, very seriously. We’ve been responding very aggressively to get this under control.”

Booms and other oil-­containment equipment were set up in ditches and around the outfall as soon as the spill was detected Friday night by ­Esquimalt staff.

The tank was drained and the spill was fully contained by Saturday night, said Stinchcombe, adding a double-barrier containment boom is now in the Gorge.

He said there was still a visible sheen on the water around the Admirals Road bridge Monday, but it was coming from “a deceivingly small amount” of oil.

Dorothy Chambers of the environmental group Salmon in the City said she was alerted to the strong-smelling spill ­Saturday by members of the public.

She said she is hopeful that buffleheads and other waterfowl keep away from the affected area. “Quick and effective mitigation is the best we can do right now,” Chambers said.

Esquimalt said in statement that there had been no reports of any harm to wildlife or other negative effects.

The District of Saanich says on its website that about 10 per cent of reported neighbourhood spills into its water courses come from residential fuel tanks, and there are typically about five such spills a year.

It’s common for home­owners to receive cleanup bills in the tens of thousands of dollars, the district said, adding most insurance policies don’t cover oil spills.

Esquimalt said it averages about one spill a year involving containment and follow up, but there has not been a significant spill “in recent memory.”

The Esquimalt Fire Department inspects oil tanks to help minimize the chance of spills, and in 2023 checked 18 above-ground tanks and four underground tanks.

A similar spill of home-­heating oil last March into Colquitz Creek — home to ­cutthroat and coho salmon — also occurred right after a home-heating oil tank had been filled, and was noticed due to a strong fuel smell around Hyacinth Park on Marigold Road.

It was determined that about 600 litres had spilled, leading to booms being in place for several days and culverts being flushed out to remove trapped oil.

A string of oil leaks in 2020 included one in January into Gorge Creek that was linked to a residence, while a spill in April into Colquitz Creek was connected to a problem with a drainage pipe.

A third spill in Colquitz Creek in May of 2020 was traced to a pair of storm drains in the Cuthbert Holmes Park area.

Residents are advised by Saanich to have their oil tanks inspected before getting them filled. The municipality has a bylaw that requires unused tanks to be removed.

Anyone who has spotted a spill or a risk of a spill occurring can report it at 1-800-663-3456.

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