10/20/2014 06:02 EDT | Updated 12/20/2014 05:59 EST

Nathan Cullen: American Help, 'Blind Luck' Averted B.C Disaster

OTTAWA - B.C.'s northern coast dodged a bullet this week when a disabled cargo ship drifted dangerously close to the shores of Haida Gwaii, opposition critics charged Monday in the House of Commons.

The Russian-flagged Simushir has been safely towed to Prince Rupert by a commercial U.S. tug but New Democrats and Liberals say the incident doesn't bode well for a dramatic increase in supertankers plying the same waters.

NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen demanded in the Commons to know whether the Conservative government is comfortable with a marine safety plan he said is based on "blind luck" and American intervention.

Fisheries Minister Gail Shea responded that "luck had nothing to do with the situation."

Shea thanked the Canadian Coast Guard, which took just under 14 hours to reach the disabled ship, and noted the Conservatives have promised a $6.8 billion shipbuilding program for the future.

Cullen says a truly grateful government wouldn't have cut the coast guard budget by $20 million and let go 300 personnel.

A Canadian Coast Guard vessel that first reached the Simushir had its tow line break three times in stormy seas, but did manage to move the disabled ship away from the marine sanctuary off the Haida Gwaii islands.

The Fisheries minister repeatedly stressed that the Simushir had become disabled in international waters.

"The private sector provides towing service to the marine industry but we are grateful that the Canadian Coast Guard was able to keep the situation under control, which was in very difficult conditions, until the (U.S.) tug arrived from Prince Rupert," said Shea.

According to the U.S. company, the tug Barbara Foss usually tows a cargo barge between Prince Rupert and Whittier, Alaska, and was arriving back in Rupert when the Simushir call came in. It dropped its barge and headed out to aid the stricken vessel, a trip that took it almost two days.

"Foss left soon after getting the call and travelled as fast and as safely as they could in poor weather conditions," company spokeswoman Megan Aukema said in an email.

Mary Polak, B.C.'s environment minister, was less reassuring about how the incident played out than her federal counterpart in Ottawa.

"We've said that there is more that needs to be done on our West Coast, we know that, we've said that from the beginning and it's been a consistent position of ours, we continue to hold that view," Polak said at the B.C. legislature in Victoria.

"This incident underlines the fact that we need to do more on our West Coast to be prepared."

The Conservatives have conditionally approved a plan by Enbridge to build the Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, B.C., which will send hundreds of supertankers annually down the same storm-tossed coast. Kinder Morgan's proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver, and a proposed LNG plant in the province, would further increase marine traffic.

Cullen, who represents a northern B.C. riding, demanded to know how anyone can back a "government plan to put hundreds of oil supertankers off the B.C. coast when we don't even have the capacity to protect ourselves right now?"

Liberal MP Joyce Murray said the lesson from the incident is that "we cannot ever say that a major oil spill will not occur on the coast of British Columbia."

The Vancouver MP called it "pathetic" that Shea repeatedly cited future ship building, given the government's record on major military and naval procurement projects.

Cullen maintains that only good fortune prevented a disaster before help could arrive. Local fishermen say the usual wind patterns following storms in the region are westerlies.

"If that had happened like it normally does, that ship would have run aground and we'd be having a very different conversation this morning," said Cullen.

"If dodging a bullet doesn't wake you up, I don't know what will. It's important for Canadians to understand how close this was."

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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said it took the Canadian Coast Guard 20 hours to reach the ship