THE BLOG

Russian Cargo Ship A Wake-Up Call For B.C. Coast

11/04/2014 07:23 EST | Updated 01/04/2015 05:59 EST

It was an anxious day and night, watching the sickening drama of the stricken Simushir, a Russian container ship, as it drifted off the coast of Haida Gwaii on October 17.

A medical emergency, a ship without power, a remote inaccessible location, and a big storm. The Haida, and British Columbians generally, feared the worst: a spill of hundreds of tonnes of bunker fuel if the vessel smashed up on shore, contaminating precious marine life -- the food basket at the heart of Haida culture.

Our governments promise world-class oil spill response, but in truth there is no such thing. Clean-up is impossible under even the calmest, most accessible conditions, and the remote waters off Haida Gwaii were anything but, with waves five to seven metres and seas rising.

As the Simushir drifted, at the mercy of wind and wave, emergency response could only arrive by boat, and it's a slow journey.

Very slow, as it turned out. The Simushir lost power at 1:30 a.m. Friday morning. The first Coast Guard ship didn't arrive for over 12 hours, and it wasn't equipped to respond. While the courageous men and women of the Canadian Coast Guard deserve our respect and gratitude -- they did all they could to keep the Simushir offshore -- in the end, only fortunate wind and weather conditions averted catastrophe that night.

The next two Coast Guard vessels took 30 hours to get there, and even after they arrived the towlines failed and the Simushir drifted loose for another six hours. The large U.S. tug boat -- the first response vessel on scene equipped to really handle the situation -- didn't arrive until 5 p.m. Saturday, almost 40 hours after the initial distress signal. Forty hours.

Blog continues below slideshow:

Ship Adrift Off B.C.'s Haida Gwaii

Just imagine how far an oil spill could slick up the coast in that amount of time.

Imagine, or just look north to Alaska and the legacy of the Exxon Valdez, with oil still on the beaches after more than 25 years. Or look south, where in 1988 bunker oil leaked from a barge in Washington, drifted up the coast and killed thousands of marine birds and wildlife in Clayoquot Sound.

The bunker fuel onboard the Simushir, enough to cause alarm, is only a small fraction of the 35,000 tonnes of oil that spilled in Alaska. In comparison, the supertankers that would carry diluted bitumen from Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline are eight times larger than the Exxon Valdez.

And that day's storm? Typical. Wave heights? Normal. Just ask any fisherman or coastal community member: this is a remote, inaccessible coastline with frequent bad weather and lots of sharp, jagged rocks.

On my mind as the saga unfolded were the fisheries the Haida depend on for jobs and food, as well as the whales and migratory birds that would be impacted by a spill. To be a coastal person is to know and love that we can pull dinner from the ocean and that we share our home with magnificent marine creatures.

Top of mind was the health and safety of the Coast Guard crew and the Haida first responders. Not just their safety amongst the big waves and rough weather, but also the long-term health impacts of being exposed to a toxic spill. Pick any example -- Exxon Valdez, or Enbridge in Kalamazoo, or BP in the Gulf -- and the result is the same: oil spills are seriously bad for the health of first responders, and I wouldn't wish those toxic conditions on any worker or volunteer.

All my respect to the Haida for showing such tremendous leadership. Throughout, my heart was with the people of Haida Gwaii who know their islands and the risk better than anyone else.

The Simushir near-disaster was a wake-up call that reinforces why a strong majority of British Columbians are adamantly opposed to any expansion of oil tankers on the B.C. coast, and why Coastal First Nations have declared a ban on oil tankers in their traditional territories.

The federal government may have approved Enbridge Northern Gateway (with conditions), but with no social license from British Columbians or First Nations approval, this project is anything but a done deal.

The Haida are one of eight First Nations that are going to court to challenge the federal approval and stop the Enbridge pipeline and tankers for once and for all. Stand with these nations and support their legal challenges at pull-together.ca.