Navy Capt. James Clark said Friday evening that the coast guard vessel Gordon Reid was on the scene, but its first attempt to secure a tow line to the Simushir was unsuccessful.
The ship is drifting northwest in stormy seas, away from Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, but coast guard spokesman Roger Girouard said it has no propulsion.
The container vessel is carrying mining equipment and unnamed solvents, as well as hundreds of tonnes of bunker and diesel fuel, he said.
"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 captain was evacuated to Sandspit, located on the eastern side of Haida Gwaii, but they were given no further medical details.
The Canadian Forces' joint rescue co-ordination centre in Victoria said Simushir lost power late Thursday night off Haida Gwaii, as it was making its way from Washington state to Russia.
The Council of the Haida Nation warned the ship could run aground by Friday evening. Haida president Peter Lantin said the 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.
"I think all efforts are being made to revive the ship and deal with the mechanical failures that have happened, so for us that's the best-case scenario if they're able to fix it and keep it from running ashore," Lantin said in an interview.
"Right now, there is no optimism that this thing is going to be salvaged. We're preparing for the worst-case scenario."
The 135-metres-long vessel is not a tanker but rather a container ship and had 11 crew members on board. In comparison, the Exxon Valdez, which ran aground in Alaska in 1989, spilled out 35,000 metric tonnes of oil.
A tugboat from Prince Rupert, on the northern B.C. coast, was expected to arrive by early Saturday morning.
In addition, the United States Coast Guard had a helicopter on standby in the event the entire crew needed to be removed from the ship.
Numerous federal and provincial agencies were involved co-ordinating the 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 up 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, located 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.
"This feels gigantic, but when you think about what's being proposed, for Haida Gwaii to bear the risk of these tankers coming in, the scale is enormous compared to this," said Lantin.
"What this gives is a real-life example of what needs to be considered. If it does (run aground), it's going to ramp up the opposition. This will change everything for us."
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 James Keller and Vivian Luk in Vancouver and Dirk Meissner
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly spelled Pendergast.