Harmonizing Federal (Canadian) Environmental Role Under the Incident Command System

The following discussion examines the mission and dual roles of the Federal (Canadian) Regional Environmental Emergency Response Team (REET) of Environment Canada and the Environmental Unit (EU) functioning under the Incident Command System (ICS) for a Marine Oil Spill in Canada.

Full Discussion Paper: Synopsis provided below
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Marine oil spill response can be laborious, expensive and fraught with conflicting environmental protection priorities.  To ensure efficient and effective use of personnel and equipment, it is essential to have quick, thorough and pragmatic response planning at the Incident Command Post and field evaluations to guide operations.  In addition, there requires a timely, equitable and transparent process to ensure agency mandates and coastal community interests are being fully addressed.


In the event of a combined government and industry response - such as for a major marine oil spill - the Environmental Unit (EU) within the Incident Command System structure may work in juxtaposition with the Federal Regional Environmental Emergency Team (REET) that serves a similar function and mission.  The purpose of this paper is to examine the mission and duality of roles of both the EU and REET under the Incident Command System when implemented by a Responsible Party and/or its Response Organization (See Note).


Note: the Canadian Coast Guard - if invoking their response system - uses a Response Management System (RMS) that is ICS like, but does not include an Environmental Unit within their Planning Section.  The CCG relies strictly on the REET being at arm-length advisory body to the Federal Incident Commander.  This paper does not address this arrangement.




This paper examines the role federal Regional Environmental Emergency Team (REET) specific to Environment Canada and the Environmental Unit (EU) that is commonly invoked within the Incident Command System (ICS) organization for oil spills by a wide-range of oil handling and shipping industries, their response organizations, contractors, and other government agencies in Canada.  It explores the context in which the REET and EU function during a marine oil spill. From this framework, the paper addresses their shared and separate roles; that is their duality.  


During an oil spill, it is essential to establish priorities for offshore oil recovery, shoreline protection and cleanup before tactical operations are fully undertaken. To get ahead of operations, there is extensive use of coastal inventory, oil sensitivity mapping, and oil spill trajectory analysis at an Incident Command Post.  The review of these resources is generally done with both coastal community and scientific community consultations. To verify - or truth - the actual spill outcomes, field observers are deployed to undertake systematic surveys.  Within the dynamics of a spill, these observers bring the field perspective to the Incident Management (Response) Team to develop the Incident Action Plans that guide operations.  


The mission of all personnel at the Incident Command Post and in-the-field is to strive for both environmentally-sound and cost-effective response methods and activities to achieve an overall “net environmental benefit”.  


A premise underlying both the REET and EU functions is that it is generally understood and agreed by the response community that government - as the steward/trustee of natural resources (shorelines, fish, birds, mammals etc.) - are responsible for establishing the environmental protection priorities during an oil spill.  Whereas, the Responsible Party is primarily responsible for the tactical operations of the response, as well as, ancillary activities to guide and support field endeavours.  These activities include command, planning, logistics, finance and administration.  


Many of the functions of the REET are essentially done and delivered by the EU within the Responsible Party’s ICS’s Planning Section of an integrated Responsible Party/Government Incident Management Team.  Often during spill exercises, the EU and REET are the same people trying to be in two places at the same time, but with different masters, processes and agendas.  This paper explores this duality and provides some clarity to mitigate conflicting roles.


Note: Responsible Party (RP) refers an agency or company taking responsibility for impact mitigation (e.g. cleanup, response management) as a possible consequence of their actions or that of a third party. Generally referred to as either spiller or polluter.


History of the Regional Environmental Emergency Team (REET)

The Regional Environmental Emergency Response Team’s (REET) origin is in eastern Canada.  As such, the REET is strongly routed in the emergency approach to spills in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces, but less so in the rest of Canada. 

In 1970, the tanker "ARROW" ran aground in Chedabucto Bay, Nova Scotia, spilling its cargo of heavy fuel oil. A lesson learned was to have the most up-to-date information and expert advice on environmental matters made more readily available during pollution emergencies. In 1973, Environment Canada set up national and regional committees to give advice on how to prevent, plan for and respond to environmental emergencies. These committees, or "teams", are made up of representatives from federal and provincial government agencies responsible for environmental protection, and from private industry. Each regional committee is referred to as the Regional Environmental Emergency Team (REET). 


In its response role, REET operates as a team of experts, advising the On-Scene-Commander whether the Canadian Coast Guard or the Responsible Party.  The REET also advises the CCG when they are taking the Federal Monitoring Office (FMO) role during a spill (e.g. when an RP has overall incident management responsibility)


History of the Environmental Unit (EU)


The Environmental Unit (EU) is a recent functional element within the Incident Command System (ICS).  The ICS was established over 30 years ago to address multi-agency/jurisdiction forest fire events and later all-threats.  Initially, the ICS didn’t have an Environmental Unit within its Planning Section. However, as the ICS became more applied to spills, it became evident that addressing environmental priorities with agencies, scientific communities, and affected local communities needed to be much more integrated within the ICS. The EU is commonly found in many agency and industry response plans with specific duties, tasks and deliverables.


Net Environmental Benefit


The aims of oil spill response are to minimize damage to environmental and socioeconomic resources, and to reduce the time for recovery of affected resources.  This view is strongly shared by participants both in the EU and REET.  All parties must accept that whatever the response, it is usually not possible to avoid all disadvantages associated with tactical activities.  Furthermore, response decisions are often made in the face of conflicting interests.  Examples include:


  • Allocating a limited number of nearshore booms to protection shellfish-bearing shorelines at the detriment of protecting popular amenity sandy beaches;
  • In-situ burning of oil resulting in short-term localized air quality impacts to mitigate long-term and environmentally damaging shore impacts and to reduce the cost of disposal of oily wastes;  
  • Chemical dispersing of oil to reduce the threat to seabirds and impacts to shoreline habitats at the risk of affecting mobile fish populations;
  • Directing a vessel to a place of refuge to localize the spill compared to incurring the risk of lightering or moving the vessel further off-shore.


An objective REET and EU members are to review and analyze existing resource information such as natural resource and shoreline sensitivity mapping – and to gather field information in a timely manner to facilitate the development of response objectives and strategies that will achieve a net environmental benefit.  The equipment and people availability, method efficacy, and cost-effectiveness are inclusive of these objectives and strategies.  The advantages and disadvantages of different response techniques need to be weighed and compared both with each other and with the advantages and disadvantages of natural clean-up. This evaluation process is referred to as Net Environmental Benefit Analysis (NEBA). 


Spill response involves three phases that can involve members of both the REET and EU: 


1. REACTIVE PHASE:  Begins with acquiring and reviewing coastal resource inventory and shoreline oil sensitivity mapping and imagery to identify resources at risk relative to the oil’s anticipated weathering behaviour and modelled trajectory.  Initial field observing preparedness is generally done from the office or even en-route to the incident.  .


The first field survey is reconnaissance-level observations of threatened shorelines, sensitivity bird and mammals populations/habitats (rookeries and haul-outs), and commercial/recreational activities (fisheries, tourism).  The objective is to provide field observations to incident management to guide the response priorities for on-water response and nearshore protection efforts related to mobile oil.  The information is often used to prepare the initial Incident Briefing (ICS Form 201)  The field findings enables response personnel to determine what is actually occurring in the field compared to the initial spill notification information.  The reactive phase are typically involve operations and/or regulatory agency representative(s).  They report back to either directly to the Incident Command and Operations Chief, or the Situation Unit Leader if a Planning Section has been established.  


2. TRANSITION PHASE:  The transitional phase is when on-water response in near completion and the focus becomes on the retrieval of pockets of mobile oil trapped along shoreline recesses (small channels, crevasses) to reduce re-oiling of shore areas.  The objective of this phase is to shift the response focus from reactive on-water oil recovery towards a protracted, systematic shoreline cleanup process.  At this stage, incident management would have established a Planning Section that includes an Environmental Unit.  The Regional Environmental Emergency Team may also be invoked under federal plans and processes. The transition phase is when stakeholders - those that have a vest interest coastal resource and shoreline protection and recovery - are more fully integrated into the planning process.  These stakeholders can include First Nations, Local Government, and tourist and fisher associations.

3. PROTRACTED SHORELINE CLEANUP PHASE:  Once all mobile oil has been removed and re-oiling of shorelines are no longer occurring, the last phase is to gather field information to guide the long-term, protracted cleanup and remediation of oil shorelines and infrastructures (marinas, park structures, water in-takes).  This process is systematic and undertaken on a shore unit-by-unit basis.  An important component of this cleanup phase is for government and the Responsible Party to establish mutually acceptable:


Rate (intensity) of shore cleanup efforts (metres of shoreline cleanup per day as a function of shoreline types – sand, gravel, cobble, etc. and available resources);

Deferred cleanup sites (shorelines designated for natural cleanup to occur such as exposed rocky headlands), and

End-points for each type of shoreline type and use that determines when a shore is considered adequately cleaned of oil (e.g. no visible oil, oil stain, no oily smell, sheen acceptable, etc).  


Incident Management


Within the incident management organization for industry and government, there is an integrated relationship that:


  1. Fosters expeditious development of response objectives/strategies, and Incident Action Plans to guide field operations, and 
  2. Provides oversight/advice to ensure that government resource management agencies and locally affected stakeholders agree on the field observations, reference materials (oil trajectory modeling, oiled shoreline sensitivity maps) and the environmental protection priorities derived. 


The management of field observations is generally the Environmental Unit the Planning Section. There may also be a federal Regional Environmental Emergency Team (REET) invoked.  The EU and REET may be combined as a single entity (EU/REET), or kept separate where the EU remains under the Planning Section and the REET is physically separate to the ICS organization – located in a designated room.


First Nations, Local Government, Coastal Associations (fishers, tourism) would be given an opportunity to participate on the environmental priority setting process whether in the EU or REET, or both. Their participation is facilitated through the Liaison Officer (Command Staff).  Special field tours maybe provided to these participants to verify the type and quality of information being collected.  The objective is to obtain “buy-in” from the affected community(s) and interest groups that the priority establishing process at a Command Post and in-the-field is scientific, transparent, thorough, and equitable.


Local land-owners and association members that can provide legitimate resource use/sensitivity information may be part of the EU/REET to compliment information coming in from the field.  The objective is to develop well-rounded listings of shoreline, resource and human uses requiring priority protection for inclusion into the Incident Action Plan. Non-government/non-Responsible Party participation is subject to Incident Command approvals.


The Duality of the EU and REET


The mechanism for establishing resource protection priorities involves field observers, shoreline sensitivity mapping, and spill trajectory modeling– as well as local stakeholders.  These functions and activities are done within the Environmental Unit (EU) in the Planning Section of the Incident Management Team.  The EU is integrated within the team functioning under the ICS and its unified command protocol.  The federal mechanism for a quite similar role is the deployment of a Regional Environmental Emergency Team (REET).  The REET functions may function at arms-length to a lead federal agency response team and/or a Responsible Party’s Incident Management Team, or choose to integrate within the EU. 


Though the participants are generally the same in both the EU and the REET– mainly government agencies, consultants, and stakeholders - there is a duality in their mission:


1. The EU within the ICS is tasked with preparing the actual response objectives and strategies, and the Incident Action Plans. Hence the unit is managed within the Unified Command/ICS organization. The EU can be viewed as largely serving as a “technical” group.


2. The REET is generally out-side the ICS structure and is tasked with establishing performance standards and to verify – in an advisory capacity- to federal and provincial commanders that these standards and priorities are communicated and implemented appropriately by the Responsible Party.  The REET can be viewed as largely serving as a “governance” group.  


This duality of the EU and REET poses a challenge for the provincial, company, response organization, and community stakeholder personnel engaged in the EU to work cohesively with the REET. It is problematic to be in two places at the same time – as well as serve dual missions (technical/governance).  The following explains the mechanism to mitigate this problem and to ensure both the EU and REET function as a cohesive, integrated group without abrogating accountability, responsibility, or incident management paradigms. (See Figure 1)


Figure 1 - The Environmental Unit (EU) and
Regional Environmental Emergency Response Team (REET)


Environmental Unit


The Environmental Unit within the ICS Operations Section - instigated by the Responsible Party - is tasked with preparing the overall response objectives and strategies as well as Incident Action Plans for each Operational Period. The personnel from the EU are primarily “technical specialists” that may be from industry, government, consulting companies, or combinations thereof.  


The EU works with all the information provided by field observers members as well as derived from coastal sensitivity maps, oil spill trajectory analysis, and stakeholders that have local knowledge and interests (fishers, tourism, First nations). The EU leader may be either an industry/response organization representative or government – as agreed on by Command.  The EU will have an organizational structure that may include personnel assigned to oily management, wildlife rescue, species (resources) at risk, sampling, oil spill trajectory, shoreline sensitivity mapping, SCAT, etc. The unit will interface with operational branches and planning groups within the Responsible Party’s ICS organization.


Regional Environmental Emergency Response Team


The Regional Environmental Emergency Response Team (REET) is a federal instigated group that general functions out-side the Incident Command System and provides advice to Command and/or the Federal Monitoring Officer/Incident Commander.  The REET is comprised mainly of the same people in the EU – that is of personnel that represent agencies that have jurisdictional and mandated responsibilities for the management of natural resources and protection of both public and commercial interests (fisheries, wildlife, water and air quality, tourism, aquaculture, waste management, etc).


To foster integration and cohesion, the REET is co-chaired by a Provincial Environmental Ministry and Environment Canada.  These co-chairs also work with - and within - the Environment Unit, BUT report to their respective Incident Commanders as advisors. They meet whenever Command addresses response objectives/strategies and Incident Action Plans or other environmental issues such as in-situ burning, dispersant use.  By use of REET co-chairs and using the same people as in the EU, it avoids a two-step (i.e. clearing-house) process that would not meet the time demands of an incident.   While in the REET capacity, the co-chairs are responsible for:


  • Reviewing the qualifications of field observers and making recommendation for approval by Command; 
  • Ensuring standardization and quality assurance of the field;
  • Ensuring the appropriateness of oil spill trajectory models and shoreline sensitivity maps;
  • Recommending the rate (intensity) and end-points for shoreline cleanup;  
  • Reviewing environmental priorities and advising command of their appropriateness; 
  • Agreeing on the Resources at Risk and review the Summary Shoreline Oiling Maps;
  • Confirming the broad strategic environmental protection priorities and stakeholder interests to Command;
  • Advising Command on in-situ oil burning and dispersant use;
  • Ensuring the Incident Action Plans for an operational period reflect the priorities and advice of REET provided to Command;
  • Expediting any permits and disposal requirements in conjunction with R.P. and response organization;  
  • Ensuring stakeholder interests are considered in the development of the environmental protection priorities, response objectives, are being met and that there is consensus.


Comparison and Merits


The REET - in a governance role - establishes the performance standards and quality assurance regarding personnel selection, analyzing, gathering, and interpreting any information pertaining to the establishment of environmental priorities.  It is responsible to ensure that stakeholders with a legitimate interest in the spill impacts and response measures are inclusive of the process.  The REET members – via the co-chairs - provide environmental advice to Command, and identifies issues that may need to be resolved.  


In comparison, the EU – though mainly the same people - is tasked with the technical delivery and compilation environmental and stakeholder information in accordance with the REET standards.  Government personnel in the EU are providing the technical inputs without prejudice and without losing or abdicating agency authority, responsibility, or accountability.  This proviso is also the cornerstone of the Incident Command System whenever there is an integrated government/industry response team.


The advantages of an EU and REET arrangement are:


  • Makes maximum use of technical specialists from a range of affiliations – government, industry, academic, consultants, local stakeholders;
  • Ensures incident management decisions (e.g. response objectives/strategies) are based on a common set of analytical tools (GIS, spill trajectory/fate and affect models, coastal resource maps, oil sensitivity maps) and field observations;
  • Meets the time demand to develop decisions and action plans within a specified operational period;
  • Reflects the polluter-pay principle, whereby the Responsible Party incurs the majority of the costs of paying for technical specialist services and deploying field ;
  • Functions according to the Incident Command System;
  • Reduces duplication of efforts related to information gathering and analysis, and
  • Provides a means for government representatives to achieve non-partisan governance function independently of the corporate interests of the Responsible Party.



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