POLITICS

Coast guard tethers to disabled Russian cargo ship off B.C. coast

10/18/2014 01:03 EDT | Updated 12/17/2014 05:59 EST
OLD MASSETT, B.C. - Members of British Columbia's Haida Nation are breathing a little easier, hoping they have avoided an environmental "catastrophe," now that a Russian cargo ship carrying hundreds of tonnes of fuel is under tow.

The Canadian Forces' joint rescue co-ordination centre in Victoria reported the Simushir lost power late Thursday night off Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, as it was making its way from Washington state to Russia.

The ship drifted in stormy seas Friday until the coast guard vessel Gordon Reid arrived on scene and secured a tow line.

Haida president Peter Lantin said he was surprised the Gordon Reid was able to tether to Simushir and tow it slowly west away from the islands at about one and a half nautical miles an hour.

"If the weather picks up it could compromise that, but as of right now there is a little sense of relief that we might have averted catastrophe here," said Latin.

Two tugs are on their way and were supposed to arrive at 1 a.m. but because of weather will likely arrive at about 4 a.m., he said.

"We're not out of the woods yet," said Lantin. "Until they get on site we really don't have, you know, absolute security of this ship."

The Haida are still preparing for a worst-case scenario should the tow line break, he added.

Roger Girouard, the coast guard's assistant West Coast commissioner, said the ship has no propulsion and is carrying mining equipment and unnamed solvents, as well as hundreds of tonnes of bunker and diesel fuel.

Earlier Friday, he said Simushir was about nine nautical miles off the coast near a place called Tasu Inlet

"There's a potential for an environmental issue here," said Girouard. "We have been already moving assets to the Haida Gwaii region to affect a response."

Reporters were told during a conference call that the ship's captain was evacuated to Sandspit, on the eastern side of Haida Gwaii, to receive medical care, but were given no further details.

Girouard said environmental-response assets from government agencies and private industry were being deployed to the area as a precautionary measure.

The U.S. Coast Guard also has a helicopter on standby in the event the remaining 10-member crew needs to be taken off the ship.

Simushir is not a tanker but rather a container ship. In comparison, the Exxon Valdez, which ran aground in Alaska in 1989, spilled out 35,000 metric tonnes of oil.

Lantin said Friday felt like a roller-coaster ride.

He said in the morning council was preparing for the ship to potentially reach land in a remote, rocky section of coastline along the southwestern edge of Haida Gwaii, raising the possibility the vessel could break apart.

Numerous federal and provincial agencies were involved in co-ordinating a response, including the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Transport Canada and B.C.'s Environment Ministry. Western Canada Marine Response Corp., which is contracted by the federal government to respond to oil spills, said it had been notified and its crews were on standby.

Rough weather was also a concern.

Sub. Lt. Ron MacDougall of the joint rescue co-ordination centre said there were winds of almost 30 kilometres per hour, though he said conditions were easing as the day progressed. Environment Canada had issued a storm warning for much of the northern coast, including the area around Haida Gwaii.

The Haida Nation set up an emergency command centre in Old Massett, on the northern tip of Haida Gwaii, in the event the vessel runs aground.

Lantin said an oil spill along the coast of Haida Gwaii would be a disaster.

"This is home for us. If this thing runs aground and hits in one of the most culturally sensitive areas of Haida Gwaii, it's going to have catastrophic effects," he said.

The potential for marine disasters along B.C.'s coast has become a particularly sensitive subject in recent years amid the debate over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. The project, if approved, would include a terminal in Kitimat, B.C., and would see tankers carrying heavy crude from Alberta traversing B.C.'s northern coast.

Lantin, whose community has staunchly opposed the Northern Gateway pipeline, said a spill in Haida Gwaii would only strengthen that opposition.

"I think regardless of what happens this is a good training exercise and an eye opener," he said. "You know it really shows us how little we're prepared ... and how much work we have to do to prepare, you know, if it happens again or when it happens again."

The Simushir is registered in Kholmsk, Russia, and owned by Russian shipping firm SASCO, also known as Sakhalin Shipping Company, according to the company's website.

The SASCO website says the ship was built in the Netherlands in 1998.

— With files from Vivian Luk, James Keller and Keven Drews in Vancouver and Dirk Meissner in Victoria

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly spelled Pendergast.