The Canadian Forces' joint rescue co-ordinationcentre said the Russian carrier Simushir lost power late Thursday night off Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, as it made its way from Everett, Washington state to Russia.
The ship is drifting northwest in stormy seas, away from shore, but Roger Girouard, an assistant commissioner with the Canadian Coast Guard, said it has no propulsion. The threat of it running aground and hitting the rocks and breaking apart is real, he said.
The fear of oil spills is especially acute in British Columbia, where residents remember the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989. Such worries have fed fierce opposition — particularly from environmentalists and Canada's native tribes — to a current proposal to build a pipeline that would carry oil from Canada's Alberta oil sands to the Pacific Coast 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, warned that a storm coming into the area was expected to push the ship onto the rocky shore.
"If it hits where it's going to hit, this ship is going to be torn apart," Pete Lantin said. "We expect a catastrophic event and a huge disaster on our hands."
About 5,000 people live on the island and fish for food nearby, Lantin said.
Girouard said the winds are currently blowing in their favour but they can't predict what the weather will do. He said they will be doing their best over the next two days to either repair the ship or get it under tow to make sure there is more space between the ship and the shore line.
"Our goal right now is on the prevention side, to keep her off the rocks," Girouard said. "Our No. 1 concern is her bunker fuel and her diesel oil and that's in the order of 450 tons of fuel of different types."
He 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 440 feet (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 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 equipmentin addition to heavy bunker fuel as well as diesel oil onboard for the voyage.
A tugboat from nearby Prince Rupert, on the northern B.C. coast, was expected to reach the container ship by early Saturday morning. Royal Canadian 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. Clarke said doing a tow at sea is very challenging and noted the 5 metre (5.5 yard) seas on Friday.
The U.S. Coast Guard had a helicopter on standby in the event that the entire crew needed to be pulled off the ship. Officials said the captain was evacuated, but they were given no further medical details.
Rough weather was a concern. MacDougall said there were 18-mph (29-kph) winds with high seas. Environment Canada had issued a storm warning for much of the northern coast, including the area around Haida Gwaii.
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.
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.
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto and Kathy McCarthy in Seattle, Washington contributed to this report.