Ministry of Labour and Citizens' Service

B.C. Marine Oil Spill Response Information System (OSRIS)

The following is a brief overview of the B.C. Marine Oil Spill Information System (referred to as OSRIS), and its historical development and use for marine oil spill preparedness and response in British Columbia, Canada. This multi-media/GIS computer system is Copyright of the B.C. Government. (Updated: July, 2002).

Table of Contents

Lessons Learned - Exxon Valdez Spill

As crude oil drifted in Alaska's Prince William Sound during the Exxon Valdez tanker incident in 1989, the Coast Guard, Environment Departments, communities, and industry scrambled to decide which coastal areas needed protection first. The complexity of quickly figuring out what constitutes a "sensitive" shoreline became obvious. Physical properties had to be weighted against ecological and social values; consensus was reached under duress, and costly mistakes happened in terms of environmental impacts and misspent funds.

Once the oil reached Alaskan shores, a long, expensive cleanup program followed. During the peak of this cleanup, there were over 10,000 workers and over $6 million (US) dollars spent daily. The issue changed to deciding which shores to clean up first and by what method. After many millions of dollars were spent and hundreds of kilometres of beach cleaned, some important lessons were learned. Many shorelines areas were cleaned unnecessarily - such many kilometres of exposed, outer-coast, rocky shores where letting the natural wave-action do the cleaning would have been a more environmentally-sound approach. Many shoreline-cleanup techniques, such as steam cleaning, caused more environmental harm than the oil itself.

In hindsight, understanding where and how to clean an oily shore is complex. There is a fine balance between harsh human interventions (rakes, shovel, hoses) and more gentle natural processes (tidal and wave action). Decisions have to be made on a shore-unit-by-shore-unit basis. Each smooth sandy beach, exposed rock headland, sheltered estuary, or protected cobblestone shore requires different cleanup methods. The wrong choice is not only environmentally damaging, but extremely expensive.

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British Columbia's Solution

The David Anderson Report to the Premier on Oil Transportation and Oil Spills (1989), prepared after the Nestucca barge spill (1988) and the EXXON Valdez tanker spill (1989), gave special attention to coastal sensitivity analysis and mapping. The report stated:

"If this is done effectively before a spill takes place, residents, industry, and government agencies will have a common understanding of objectives, and much of the initial confusion present in both the Nestucca spill and the Exxon Valdez spill will be avoided." (Section 4.02).

Identification of coastal inventory and oil sensitivity became a strategic objective of the British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks. This direction recognizes that British Columbia is the owner and steward of over 27,000 kilometers of foreshore, the waters and sea-bed between all headlands (the jaws of land), and major inland waters such as the Strait of Georgia. The 1991 B.C. Marine Oil Spill Prevention and Preparedness Strategy, stated the following strategic principle:

"The Province will take an active leadership and participatory role in coastal resource identification and, in the event of an oil spill, the protection and cleanup of the intertidal shoreline and seabed that are under the jurisdiction of the Province. The Province's response efforts will focus on identification and mapping of Provincial Crown resources, which include, but are not limited to, intertidal marine habitats, wildlife habitats and populations, archaeological, cultural, aquatic, parks, and ecological reserves."

British Columbia's Marine Oil Spill Response Plan reiterated this principle of provincial response efforts' focusing on identification and mapping of coastal resources. A major role of the provincial emergency response team is to set priorities for resource protection and to establish measures for oil spill cleanup. The main tool to fulfil this function is the Marine Oil Spill Response Information System (often referred to as: OSRIS).

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Marine Oil Spill Response Information System

B.C. Environment, Lands and Parks began in 1992 to develop a computer-based Marine Oil Spill Response Information System. OSRIS now resides with the Integrated Land Management Bureau as one of several of applications using its extensive Coastal Inventory program. OSRIS and the Coastal Inventory system includes multiple data-types such as satellite images, digital maps (topographical/bathometry), and geographically referenced information. The information within OSRIS relates to more than 50 coastal resources, including the physical character of the shorelines and the biological species that interact with the shoreline, such as fish, birds, and marine mammals. The database also includes human activities that occur in the coastal zone, such as sport and commercial fisheries, aquaculture, native harvesting, tourism, recreation, and commercial enterprises. Special status areas, such as archaeological and heritage sites (password protected), and ecological reserves and parks, are also included. Coastal inventory and human uses are linked independently to a uniquely defined shoreline unit. Each shoreline unit is based on its geomorphology: sandy beach, rock platform, cobble, rock cliff, etc.

The strength of OSRIS lies with its detailed coastal inventory. Based on this inventory, a sophisticated computer modeling program figures out the sensitivity of each shoreline unit. The modeling program considers such aspects as: oil residency, coastal resources present, species rating, seasonality, human-use rankings, and more. Identification of the most important and vulnerable coastal areas enables priorities for shoreline protection from oil pollution to be decided. Based on this sensitivity determination, OSRIS also identifies countermeasures strategies, such as protection booming. During a spill event, OSRIS has a spill trajectory model that can simulate the spread of oil on water depending on wind direction, time and current/tidal regimes. Where shoreline oiling occurs, OSRIS determines the most environmentally sound cleanup strategies. Post-spill functions of OSRIS include long-term monitoring, resource impact assessment, and damage evaluations.

In summary, benefits of OSRIS include improved pre-spill determination of sensitive shorelines that would require protection or cleanup, improved capabilities to decide equipment deployment and cleanup logistics, improved resource damage assessments, and ability to conduct litigation for damage compensation.

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Progress Report for 2002

Before 1994, OSRIS was largely a prototype developed in-house by the Environmental Emergency Program of B.C. Environment with the assistance of contracted Geographic Information System (GIS) consultants, oil geomorphologists, biologists, and archaeologists. A comprehensive coastal-inventory database, satellite imagery, and video of the Southern Strait of Georgia (Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island from Nanaimo to Race Rocks, Roberts and Sturgeons Banks, and Boundary Bay) became the initial foundation of OSRIS.

In 1994, the system supported the work of the Committee on Resources and the Environment (CORE) for Vancouver Island. Based on a partnership arrangement, OSRIS system relocated to the Land Use Coordination Office (LUCO). Currently, the primary coastal products that the Integrated Land Management Bureau's Coastal Initiatives produces are the Coastal Resource Inventory and the Coastal Resource and Oil Spill Response Atlases and other mapping information to support coastal planning/management. These products are produced digitally and the information used in their creation supports other terrestrial and marine planning processes, and research projects throughout the province.

An atlas has been prepared for the Southern Strait of Georgia (Race Rocks to Nanaimo) and for the West Coast of Vancouver Island (Barkley Sound to Esperanza Inlet). Data has also been collected for:

  • Northern Strait of Georgia (Nanaimo to Quadra Island)
  • Johnstone Strait (Quadra Island to Cape Caution)
  • Mid Coast (Cape Caution to Princess Royal Island)
  • North Coast (Princess Royal to Portland Inlet)
  • Queen Charlotte Islands
  • North West Coast of Vancouver Island (Esperanza Inlet to Mexicana Point)

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The development of this atlas, particularly the collection of coastal inventory, was financially supported by Burrard Clean Operations, (Vancouver). Burrard Clean Operations, formally a local oil industry spill response cooperative, is Canada's first certified Response Organization under the Canada Shipping Act, ready to serve all major vessels entering British Columbia ports and oil handling facilities. Their support for both OSRIS and the atlas has been instrumental in the success of these endeavours.

For more information, contact the Program Manager for Resource Analysis and Information Management of the Coastal Initiatives of the Integrated Land Management Bureau.