POLITICS
10/12/2011 12:04 EDT | Updated 12/12/2011 05:12 EST

MV Miner: Feds Say Ship Stranded Off Cape Breton Poses No Environmental Or Navigation Threat

Canadian Coast Guard
HALIFAX - The premier of Nova Scotia says it's unacceptable that the federal government is walking away from a shipwreck off the coast of Cape Breton that could pose a long-term environmental threat to a productive fishing area.

Darrell Dexter issued a stern rebuke to Ottawa on Wednesday soon after Transport Canada and the coast guard issued a joint statement saying the grounded bulk carrier MV Miner is not an environmental hazard because all of its fuel, lubricants and oily bilge water have been removed.

"I just don't believe that we can simply accept that the federal government is going to walk away from a wreck for which they provided the permits ... and ultimately, the province of Nova Scotia wouldn't accept that," Dexter said.

"The one thing that is absolutely certain is that the province of Nova Scotia is not liable for damages. We didn't cause it."

On Sept. 20, the empty 230-metre ship was being towed by a tugboat to a Turkish scrapyard when it broke free in rough seas and ran aground on Scatarie Island, a provincial wilderness area about two kilometres from the northeast coast of Cape Breton.

Attempts to pull the former Great Lakes freighter off the rocks have failed, and there now appear to be huge holes near the stern of the vessel.

Dexter said he wants to make sure the wreck is removed from the island, even if it has to be torn apart.

He said the ship is probably coated in lead paint and may contain electronic gear that could contaminate the surrounding waters with heavy metals.

"It's only going to get worse," Dexter said, adding that the ocean continues to take its toll on the battered vessel. "I can assure you, the ocean is never calm."

For the past two days, the premier said he has been unable to reach federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, the minister responsible for the coast guard.

In the joint statement, Transport Canada and the coast guard said they have both fulfilled their commitments, concluding there is no pollution coming from the ship and it does not pose a risk to navigation.

There was no indication in the statement what the federal government intends to do with the wreck. A request for an interview Wednesday with Transport Minister Denis Lebel was declined.

Last week, the Nova Scotia government filed a statement of claim in Federal Court accusing the tug's owners of negligence. The claim says if the ship breaks up, the cost of salvage and cleanup could hit $24 million.

The claims have yet to be proven in court and the tug's owners — Pellas Shipping Co. and Interport Marine Inc. of Greece — have yet to file a statement of defence. A call to the Halifax lawyer representing the owners was not returned.

Dexter has said he's concerned the salvage operation, which is within federal jurisdiction, could be delayed because of arguments over who will pay the bills.

Transport Canada confirmed it is still investigating to ensure the tug company has complied with the Canadian Shipping Act.

"If the tug operator is found in non-compliance of the regulations, fines could be imposed," the statement said.

Lebel said his department has responded to all areas within its authority.

"We have fulfilled our duties and have worked in close collaboration with our federal partners and will continue to be engaged as necessary," the statement said.

Ashfield said his department has also met its commitment to protecting the marine environment.

More than 10,000 litres of marine diesel oil, lubricants and oily waste have been removed from the vessel over the past three weeks.

"I am pleased that the Canadian Coast Guard fulfilled its responsibility in this matter quickly and as efficiently as possible," Ashfield said in the statement.

Mark Butler, a policy director with the Ecology Action Centre, said he was concerned about the potential for long-term environmental harm to the area around the ship.

"This isn't going to create an environmental catastrophe, but in the local area there might be contamination from the vessel," Butler said.

On Saturday, coast guard crews reported seeing some "minor sheening'' at the stern of the wreck, indicating a spill of some kind from the engine room.

A boom was placed inside the wreck to contain the spill and the sheen outside eventually dissipated, the coast guard said.