Stewardship and due diligence in maritime operations

A recent Canadian Press article regarding Canadian Forces rules for maritime operations in Canada’s arctic region sparked some debate about whether the CF and the navy are reasonable stewards of the environment.  Canadians picked up on this article and the headlines chosen by the editors such as “Navy granted dumping rights”, and they were naturally outraged.  Inuit leaders called on the CF to cease this terrible practice.  We could debate the quality of the editing and reporting that led to this misinterpretation, but that is not my point here.  Before this article came out, one arctic expert and naval operations observer had asked me if our efforts to exceed standards of environmental regulations were at the expense of our ability to meet operational or mission requirements in the north.  So we had two challenges at opposite ends of the spectrum.

So, which was it?  Were we using the arctic as a dumping ground as was reported in headlines or were we failing to meet Canada’s security needs in the north by setting too high a standard?  I believe that the answer to both questions is no but that answer lies in an understanding of what we are trying to accomplish with due diligence and what are the limits of environmental stewardship.

Warships and some other government vessels are sometimes exempted from certain statutory requirements.  Governments exclude certain vessels from some regulatory requirements that they might otherwise apply to commercial and recreational vessels.  Such exemptions are carefully considered. There are reasons for this, but the most important is that there are occasions when national defence and security or other critical activities in the national interest may need to take precedence over other considerations.  In an extreme example, shooting down an airplane or firing weapons at a ship will clearly have an environmental impact.  Applying lethal force is a terrible business, but sometimes it is the only option in the national interest, in the defence of a nation.

Similarly, the CF has a critical role to play in missions involving other government departments such as security, sovereignty, fisheries, and the environment.  Search and rescue is a good example of a critical government service.  There are times when the saving of life may require some latitude in the interpretation of environmental or other regulations.  Consider the sewage treatment in the Halifax-class frigates.  Contrary to the inference in the article, sewage from a modern warship is treated before it is discharged.  This is no different than the sewage coming from communities that have treatment facilities – and not all of them do.  What happens when that treatment facility fails due to mechanical or electrical failure?  Should the ship carry on with a mission or proceed back to port for repairs?  The rule set that we give our commanding officers should provide them with the guidance be able to make those decisions.

Due diligence requires that we make every effort to meet standards and requirements set out in applicable regulations and that we provide our commanding officers with the guidance necessary to ensure such compliance.  However, where the navy may be exempt from regulation and law, what standard should be set?  The answer to this question lies in good stewardship.

We live and work in the coastal waters of British Columbia, Atlantic Canada, and in the arctic.  Our sailors are Canadians too and they have the same pride and sense of ownership of the environment as other Canadians.   This is our backyard – none of us want waste dumped in our backyard.  Defending this nation and protecting its future for our children is a worthy objective that we all share.

Consequently, in the drafting of regulations applicable to our ships and submarines, we try to set the highest practicable standards that as a minimum meet all statutory requirements.  In our efforts to achieve a balance between the achievement of our mission and environmental protection we usually exceed both those regulations that we are required to follow and those for which we may be exempt.  Then, in order to preserve a measure of flexibility to achieve certain critical missions, we provide for cases where an exemption may need to be applied; in those rare circumstances and in the heat of crisis we still must meet critical national objectives.

We plan our operations with the environment in mind and we conduct environmental impact assessments to ensure that we meet our roles and responsibilities.  We do it in a fashion that is cognizant of the potential impacts of our daily operations and with a view to minimizing those impacts to the extent possible.  For example, we do not operate our sonar for training purposes when we know marine mammals are near.  Our sewage is normally treated.  The standard operating procedure is that all solid waste is held on board our ships until they get to port.   The navy is a voluntary participant for cetacean reporting, to allow the scientific community a better understanding of the movement of these species. Given the sensitivity of Canada’s internal arctic waters, the planning and effort to meet our environmental stewardship responsibilities in those waters is especially vigorous.

This year’s deployment to the Arctic included a Victoria-class submarine for the first time.  In the interests of good stewardship, we wanted to ensure that HMCS Corner Brook met the highest possible standards.  Therefore, when we encountered difficulties with the installation of a new system for environmental protection, we limited the submarine’s operations accordingly.  That was prudent but more importantly, since there was no urgent operational imperative, it was also good stewardship.

Our presence up north is intended to facilitate the work of other responsible agencies like the RCMP, the Canadian Coast Guard and Environment Canada.  Asserting our sovereignty in the north will help preserve this pristine ecosystem for future generations.  Therefore, a Canadian naval presence in the arctic is a good thing for Canada and for Canadians.

So then what should the article have said?  Well, Canadian navy rules were drafted to comply with federal legislation regarding shipping in the arctic, including the Fisheries Act, the Canada Shipping Act and the Arctic Water Pollution Prevention Act.  Beyond mere compliance, all reasonable attempts are made to minimize the impact of our operations.  Thus, where we can, we tend to exceed the minimum requirements.  The procedures for internal arctic waters set the very highest standards. Did we relax our rules to keep ships from becoming smelly?  Not at all!  The normal routine is still to keep all garbage on board until the next port and to treat our sewage.  Revisions to our policy are only for those urgent critical missions and those rules still meet all statutory requirements.

As the government moves forward with new strategies to improve its environmental stewardship, the CF will adapt its policies and procedures.  We will continue to do our best to be both diligent and a good steward of the environment. As Canadians, that is as it should be.