Statement by the Communist Party of BC, April 19, 2015

Two recent serious environmental incidents in Vancouver, within the unceded traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples, are a sobering reminder of the potential consequences of transporting huge quantities of volatile raw materials through heavily populated urban areas. On March 4, a fire at the port released clouds of toxic acid into the air over a large part of the city, followed on April 8 by a spill of bunker fuel in English Bay.

In the view of the Communist Party of BC, these cases, and also the massive April 16 fire at the Squamish Terminals deep-water port, are proof that corporate interests and governments at all levels must be held fully accountable when their economic activities (or inaction) endanger people and nature.

There are still many unanswered questions about the March 4 fire at the Vancouver docks. This situation could have been even more dangerous if not for quick action by courageous, well-trained members of the International Longshore Workers Union, who identified the chemical involved in the container fire, and by firefighters who were on scene within 11 minutes. These workers also helped to ensure that the dock area was evacuated and that the health hazard to thousands of people was made known as soon as possible. The city’s response in warning residents of the affected neighbourhoods to stay indoors was timely and well justified. However, it appears that little effort has been made to estimate the full extent of the toxic materials emanating from the fire. Residents in the Downtown Eastside, Strathcona and Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhoods reported seeing brownish-yellow clouds of toxic chemicals in streets close to the port, which should warrant a much more in-depth investigation of the possible long-term health impacts in these areas.

Just over a month later, at least 2700 litres of toxic bunker fuel was leaked from the MV Marathassa, a grain carrier in English Bay. Hours elapsed before any cleanup began, and the City was not notified until nearly 12 hours later. Although this size of fuel spill is regarded as relatively minor, it resulted in the temporary closure of recreational fisheries west of the Lion’s Gate Bridge, and residents were warned to stay off the beaches for several days during cleanup operations. In the wake of the spill, it was unclear which level of government or which department has authority over monitoring water quality in English Bay and Burrard Inlet, and experts say that federal cuts to science programs have left a major gap in research and preparedness for such events. This incident confirms that the Harper government committed a major blunder by closing down the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station last year. According to retired Canadian Coast Guard Capt. Tony Toxopeus, who spent his 32-year career in the Vancouver harbour, the station could have had a boat with oil-containing booms by the vessel’s side within an hour of the spill. The paltry savings of $700,000 from this closure will lead to a far larger expense in human lives or environmental costs, even sooner than expected.

The Communist Party of BC believes that there are several urgent lessons to be learned from these near-tragedies, which could very easily have become far worse. First, these incidents show the importance of strong public services. The short-sighted austerity agenda of slashing services to allow for bigger tax cuts to the rich and the corporations will have enormous negative long-term costs. Second, these cases emphasize the need for organized workforces in both the private and public sectors. Since they are usually the initial responders in emergencies, workers who have the protection of trade unions and strong collective agreements are in a much better position to act in the wider interests of society, without fear of being fired or disciplined for refusing to put their priority on corporate profits.

These incidents also raise fundamental issues related to jobs, the economy and the environment. As experiences in both capitalist and socialist societies over the past centuries prove, human economic activities inevitably have consequences for the environment, such as the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on global weather patterns. The Communist Party does not advocate ending industrial economic activities, a strategy which would result in the deaths of billions of human beings, especially those who lack the wealth and resources to survive such a change. But we do argue that governments must be compelled to exercise much more stringent controls over the extraction, transport and processing of raw materials, in order to limit the extent of resulting environmental damage. Our collective aim must be to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, and to utilize other strategies to limit the environmental footprint of human economies. Ultimately our goal is to curb the power of transnational capital, and to create economies based on socialized ownership of resources and the means of production, under the genuine democratic control of the working class. In other words, we call to replace the present day capitalist system, which is based on maximising private profit for the tiny handful of rich exploiters, with a socialist society which puts the needs of people and nature first.

Time is running short to block the disastrous environmental crisis looming for our planet, which is overwhelmingly the result of unchecked exploitation of labour and natural resources by transnational corporations and imperialist powers. The Communist Party of BC urges the people of this province to mobilize for immediate measures to preserve the environment, and to fight for a socialist alternative to the dead end of capitalism.