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Simushir, fuel-laden Russian cargo ship, adrift off Haida Gwaii after tow lines part

10/18/2014 11:50 EDT | Updated 12/18/2014 05:59 EST
A Russian cargo ship carrying hundreds of tons of fuel is once again adrift off the west coast of Haida Gwaii after a Canadian Coast Guard vessel lost three tow lines.

A spokesman with the Canadian Forces' Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria told CBC News at 11:30 a.m. PT that the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Gordon Reid had tried three times to attach lines to the incapacitated ship, but that all three lines had snapped.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Desmond James said it wasn't wholly unexpected that the lines to the Simushir, to use nautical terminology, "parted."

"What's good is that she's very far off the coast. We've put some really good distance there," he told CBC News.

The coast guard is also dealing with waves as high as four metres.

The ship, which was 14.5 kilometres offshore when the Gordon Reid secured the first tow line at 6:30 p.m. Friday night, was reported to be 46 kilometres from land as of 9:30 a.m. Saturday.

- LIVE BLOG | Follow updates on the progress to secure the Simushir

Two other vessels, the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir Wilfrid Laurier and U.S. Coast Guard cutter Spar, are standing by to provide assistance, but aren't properly equipped to secure and tow a large ship, James said.

The hope is that the oceangoing tug Barbara Foss, which is still en route, will be able to secure and direct the cargo ship.

"That really puts us in a good position to kind of made some decisions on the way ahead," James said.

An RCAF Cormorant helicopter, RCAF Buffalo aircraft and U.S. Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter remain on standby and have been pre-positioned in Sandspit, should any of the remaining 10 crew members on the ship need rescuing, he said.

The Russian carrier Simushir lost power off Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, on Friday as it made its way from Everett, Wash., to Russia.

Earlier Saturday, James said the operation was "very dynamic," but had been going well. He said the question of where to take the ship would soon have to be answered.

"The decisions now, or what they're looking at, is at what point do we want to start making this tow from a westerly direction to a northerly direction, and start to get back toward a plan or an idea that will allow us to plan to bring this vessel toward the shore," he said.

"We don't have a location or any of that — I know people are asking — but really, we want to start making this vessel start making headway northward."

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also tweeted his thanks Saturday morning for the "great work" the Gordon Reid ship was doing off the coast.

'Might have averted catastrophe'

The ship was drifting northwest in stormy seas Friday, away from shore, after losing power late Thursday, officials said.

The fear of oil spills is especially acute in British Columbia, where residents remember Alaska's 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. Such worries have fed fierce opposition — particularly from environmentalists and First Nations communities — to a current proposal to build a pipeline that would carry oil from the Alberta oilsands to a terminal in Kitimat for shipment to Asia. Opponents say the proposed pipeline would bring about 220 large oil tankers a year to the province's coast.

The president of the Council of the Haida Nation had warned Friday that a storm coming into the area was expected to push the ship onto the rocky shore of Moresby Island, but later council president Pete Lantin said their worst fears have subsided.

"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," Latin said.

About 5,000 people live on the island and fish for food nearby, Lantin said.

The Haida Nation said it had set up an emergency command centre in Old Massett, located on the northern tip of Haida Gwaii, in case the vessel runs aground.

Rough seas would break up oil

Roger Girouard, an assistant commissioner with the Canadian Coast Guard, said their top concern was the fuel and diesel oil on board and the risk that the ship could hit the rocks and break apart.

He earlier said if the ship did come apart the rough seas would break up the oil "so we would have an ally there. It's cold weather so we don't have a lot of migratory species right at the moment."

He said they have been already moving assets to the region to respond should the break apart and spill.

Acting Canadian Sub. Lt. Ron MacDougall said the Simushir, which is about 135 metres long, was carrying "a range of hydrocarbons, mining materials and other related chemicals." That included 400 tons of bunker oil and 50 tons of diesel.

The vessel is not a tanker but rather a container ship. In comparison, the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled out 35,000 metric tons of oil.

A spokesman for Russian shipping firm SASCO, the owners of the vessel, said it is carrying 298 containers of mining equipment in addition to heavy bunker fuel as well as diesel oil.

The U.S. Coast Guard had a helicopter on standby in the event that 10 crew members need to be pulled off the ship. Officials said the injured captain was taken from the ship by helicopter, but they were given no further medical details.

The Simushir is registered in Kholmsk, Russia, and owned by 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.

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