Not so slick reporting: Vancouver residents told to ‘take a chill pill’ after diesel spill in English Bay.

Image by Jay-P |

Image by Jay-P |

Only a few days after the one-year anniversary of the MV Marathassa oil spill in English Bay, residents of Greater Vancouver learned -- once again -- that a spill was present in the area.

Details of the spill were at first unclear. The initial images, taken from the helicopter of a local tour company, revealed a sheen of an unknown substance. Local residents, familiar with the immediate and long-term issues resulting from last year’s incident, were understandably nervous about the potential environmental and health impacts of the spill. Of particular concern was the health of the humpback whale spotted in English Bay several times in the days prior to the spill.

It was later determined that the liquid was diesel fuel, and was expected to dissolve quickly. The Coast Guard deemed the spill unrecoverable, and therefore, cleanup efforts were not necessary.

The Coast Guard and City of Vancouver acted quickly, updating the public frequently and taking necessary precautions. Many on social media bemoaned another spill so soon after last year’s incident. The city, after all, is trying to become one of the world’s greenest urban centers.

However, shortly after the spill became public, some questioned the manner in which local residents were reacting to the news of a new spill. One article was published addressing the apparent over-reaction to the incident by commenters on social media and even the traditional media, saying that Vancouver “freaked out a little”, telling residents to “take a chill pill”, and concluding with: “Breathe, Vancouver.”

In response to this, here’s a question I’d like to ask: At what point is an oil spill (or a mine tailings storage facility breach, or methane leak) big enough for us to start ‘freaking out’? Are we only allowed to express concern about the state of environmental health following catastrophic events like the Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez spills? How much environmental damage needs to occur before our worrying is justified?

The fact that the substance in question was ‘just’ diesel apparently means that the public’s concern towards seeing a fuel spill was irrational and silly. Estimates that the slick would disappear within a few hours was reported in such a way as to make those who felt anxious seem like unknowledgeable, naïve, and gullible victims of fear mongering.

I understand that not all substances will cause adverse impacts within ecosystems (read: ‘the dose makes the poison’). But just because a spill ‘cleans itself up’ will not always guarantee the absence of negative environmental consequences (including threats to wildlife and human health).

We, the concerned people of the world, are not catastrophic thinkers. We’re not irrational tree-huggers. We’re not “anti-corporate, anti-progress, anti-everything” hypocrites (as stated by a commenter). We’re concerned about the world that we live in, and the fact that these concerns are ridiculed reveals another really big problem: environmental apathy.

It’s okay to be concerned about the environment, especially as a young person helping to shape the future. It’s okay to ask questions, and it’s okay to be skeptical of the ways in which our most valuable resources are managed. It’s okay to be emotional about our only home. Just ask the estimated 22,000 fisheries workers who lost their jobs following the aforementioned Deepwater Horizon incident.

Most importantly, it’s okay to care. It’s even okay to care about a short-lived diesel spill.

I find it deeply disturbing that the occasional spill – whether the culprit is diesel or crude oil or untreated sewage – is expected to be accepted as the part of the status quo. Perhaps worse is the ridicule people experience –- young people, in particular –- when we express concerns about occurrences that are ‘just part of modern life’. We’re labeled as juvenile, foolish, naïve, irrational, unrealistic, and, of course, hypocritical. But we are not hypocrites for refusing to believe that environmental harm is just something we must accept. And we are not hypocrites for asking questions. Without asking questions, how can we even find the solutions? Being a part of the problem does not exclude us from being a part of the solution.

Although yesterday’s spill is not expected to have any negative impacts for English Bay and the surrounding environment, the bigger issue here is the widespread apathy towards environmental stewardship. Just because this spill disappeared on its own does not mean that our worries should also disappear. We cannot let condescending remarks or eye-rolls discourage us from working to protect the very ecosystems we depend on for our well-being. We cannot let the complacency of others influence or undermine our efforts to improve the way we treat our planet.

Please, don’t take that chill pill.