Responding to Environmental Emergencies

With contributions from the Environmental Emergencies Program and the National Environmental Emergencies Centre.

A milestone oil spill happened on February 4, 1970 when the Liberian-registered tanker, S.S. Arrow, sank in Chedabucto Bay, Nova Scotia. The tanker, carrying over 14,000 tonnes of Bunker C fuel oil, was on its way to Point Tupper when it hit Cerebus Rock, a well-known navigation hazard in the area.

The Arrow’s crew was rescued late that night. However, winter conditions, strong winds and poor visibility made it difficult to free the ship and empty the cargo tanks. A few days later, the ship started to split in two and sank into the waters of the bay. Over 10,000 tonnes of oil cargo escaped into the Bay and covered over 300 km of the shoreline. This spill threatened fishing operations, fish-packing plants, bird life, and the marine ecosystem. Some oil stayed trapped in the tanks of the sunken ship, which created a threat of future spills.

The S.S. Arrow incident highlighted a need for stronger scientific advice. This led to a Cabinet Directive in 1973 that required Environment Canada to take a lead role in the federal government’s response to environmental emergencies. The Environmental Emergencies Program was created to be maintained by a National Environmental Emergencies Centre (NEEC) and five Regional Centres. In 2012, NEEC evolved into what it is today.

The Program’s early focus was to learn as much as possible about hazardous material spills such as how they spread, harmful effects and how to respond to spills. It was also important to begin working with academia, coordinating with provinces, creating a way to report spills and starting a national record-keeping system. During the 1980s and the years that followed, the program grew to include activities in prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Today, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Environmental Emergencies Program depends on many experts: meteorologists, biologists, water scientists, environmental engineers and enforcement officials. Together they offer trusted, expert advice to help agencies, responsible parties and industry make smart decisions before, during and after an environmental emergency.

SS Arrow tanker ship starting to sink into the ocean. The middle and back of the ship are still above the surface

Figure 1: Sinking of the S.S. Arrow in 1970. Photo by the Canadian Forces

Three workers along the Nova Scotia shoreline on a rainy day. Two are collecting debris and one is using a clipboard.
Figure 2: 2015 Survey and cleanup of the shoreline impacted by the Arrow. Photo submitted by the National Environmental Emergencies Centre (NEEC)

To find out more about how Environment and Climate Change Canada protects Canadians from pollution emergencies; visit the Environmental Emergencies Program website.

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