Canada Trains Arctic Rangers for Spill Response

By Bob Tkacz

Nicole Lefebvre, a Canadian Ranger from Atlin British Columbia and Canadian Coast Guard Environmental Response Officer Mike Leonard of Hay River practice deploying boom on the shoreline of Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Ms. Lefebvre is one of 17 Rangers who received spill response training from the Canadian Coast Guard. Photo courtesy of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The Canadian government is using the knowledge of Arctic residents and local conditions like floating ice as a natural containment boom in response drills for the common northern hazard of diesel fuel spills.

“In some cases moving ice is going to be a problem because you have to fasten the boom like you would a fence. The mass of ice, moving through at slow currents is going to tear apart your boom,” said Larry Trigatti, superintendent of environmental response for the Canadian Coast Guard and manager of a week-long Tallurutiit spill response exercise at the island community of Resolute. Tallurutiit is an Inuktitut word that references the North West Passage.

“There are other ways you can actually use the ice to your advantage. Pack ice actually acts as a physical barrier for floating diesel. Depending on the circumstances it can be your enemy and it can be your best friend,” Trigatti said.

With a year-round population of fewer than 250 residents, Resolute is on the south coast of Cornwallis Island, about 457 miles above the Arctic Circle and 1,406 miles northeast of Barrow. About 25 Canadian Rangers, locally based military units similar to the US National Guard, and personnel from the Ministry of Indian Affairs and other Canadian agencies practiced on the shore and in coastal waters deploying containment boom, operating beach flushing systems and in assessment techniques. Assessments are “sort of pre-engineering,” Trigatti explained, which identify shoreline geography and other features and determine the level of oiling based on a predetermined scale so that appropriate equipment can be sent to the spill.

Rangers “bring unique local knowledge about the wildlife. They run safety patrols. They know the lay of land. They know the unique systems, the seasonal variances in their communities and their environments,” Trigatti said. Weather conditions for the Aug. 19-26 exercise were seasonal, with an average temperature of 41 degrees, some high winds and broken multi-year ice in Resolute Bay, he said.

Using ice as a natural spill containment boom, which Trigatti called “slotting techniques,” is standard practice on Canadian lakes. “Because oil floats what happens is it will actually collect in those areas and you can use a skimmer to recover it. You don’t need a boom,” he said.

Like Alaska, the vast distances, lack of transportation infrastructure and quickly changing weather can prevent responders to any emergency from reaching the scene for days or weeks. In addition to local training, Canada’s response includes pre-positioning of 19 spill response community packs in Arctic villages.

Each pack contains three response kits. Kits include enough boom, beach wash and other equipment to respond to a five ton or 1,320 gallon diesel spill. “We have a quick response that’s going to deal with source control and be able to protect local priorities in the zero to 48-hour time frame,” Trigatti said.

Local response capability is critical because the CCG’s primary storage base for spill response gear is in Hay River, Northwest Territories, 994 miles and a full day’s loading and flight time from Resolute. The village can have several million gallons of diesel fuel in storage at any given time and larger communities may have tens of millions of gallons for heating and electrical generation.

Privately owned aircraft carrying RAT, or rapid air transportable response packages from the Hay River base need landing strips at least 3,000 feet long, but kits must be repackaged to reach smaller communities.

The CCG has no heavy lift aircraft. It would use contract or spot charter planes for most spill response transport, but could get help from the Canadian Air Force for larger incidents Trigatti said.

Unlike the United States, Canada does not use dispersants to respond to hydrocarbon spills. “We don’t factor in a capacity for dispersants in our planning right now. We’re focused on the physical removal of the product. It’s the skimming. It’s dealing with the physical properties of the pollutants, not with the chemical at this point,” Trigatti said.

Canada began placing community packs in the mid-1990s and has been expanding its spill response capability ever since. “There’s so much more to the exercise or to the deployments than just the boom in the water. It’s how you held your people, how you assessed the human resources that you need. It’s a three-pronged approach, maintaining the infrastructure, having the personnel available and then having the equipment to do the heavy lifting,” Trigatti said.

Gail Shea, federal minister of fisheries and oceans, said Tallurutiit was intended “to make sure we are as prepared as possible. The Canadian Coast Guard is very much aware of the unique marine environmental sensitivities in the Arctic. Our training was an opportunity for all responders to work together to improve communications and coordination for potential responses to pollution incidents in Canadian Arctic waters.”

Bob Tkacz can be reached at