02/25/2015 03:47 EST | Updated 04/27/2015 05:59 EDT

War ship in B.C. could sink accidentally if not towed to Halkett Bay: lawyer

VANCOUVER - A deteriorating former warship from the 1960s is on "borrowed time," with only months to go before it could sink accidentally, a Federal Court has heard.

A lawyer for the Artificial Reef Society of B.C. said Wednesday that the vessel must be towed from Long Bay to Halkett Bay Marine Park on Gambier Island, to be sunk to create an artificial reef for divers and marine life.

Otherwise, the HMCS Annapolis could sink on its own, causing environmental devastation that may cost more than $2 million to clean up, Bryan Hicks argued.

"Not only would it be an environmental catastrophe from the perspective of its effects on the sea bed at that location ... but also it would create danger for boat traffic in that area," he said.

The reef society was in court to fight an application made by the Save Halkett Bay Marine Park Society to stop the planned sinking of the ship.

The Save Halkett Bay group, formed by concerned residents, argues that the ship contains toxic chemicals and its planned sinking would pollute the waters and damage marine life.

Hicks said Environment Canada estimated in August 2014 that the risk of accidental sinking would grow over the following six months and become highly likely by the summer of 2015 due to the age and corrosion of the vessel.

When the federal agency issued a permit last October to allow the planned sinking, the reef society began to prepare by pumping in sea water to fill some gas tanks and cutting holes in the hull.

But the Save Halkett Bay group filed an injunction to stop the sinking in January, shortly before the reef society hoped to carry out its plans.

Hicks argued Wednesday that the group should have filed its court action sooner and has now put the reef society — and the Annapolis — in a perilous position.

Martin Peters, lawyer for Save Halkett Bay, said he was waiting to hear from federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq after the group asked her to create a panel to review the decision to issue a permit to the reef society.

Aglukkaq, who is also named in the court action, declined to create such a panel in January.

Peters said it was only in December that the group received independent laboratory results showing the ship contained toxic compounds called tributyltins.

The compounds are specifically designed to prevent the growth of marine life, and Peters argued it's illegal to dispose them in the ocean.

"This is the most dangerous substance, most toxic substance, ever introduced into the marine environment," he said.

He argued the environment minister did not adequately consider the presence of tributyltins when she issued the permit. Environment Canada tests for the compounds in the ship's paint were "inconclusive," Peters said.

But Hicks argued the federal government thoroughly considered tributyltins in the decision to issue a permit. Since the paint was applied more than 12 years ago, the tributyltins were deemed "inactive," and no longer pose a risk to marine life.

He said Environment Canada found the hull of the ship was covered in extensive marine life, which would have been impossible if the tributyltins were still active.