Home Ice bergs 109-container cargo spill renews First Nations’ calls to revolutionize the way we deal with maritime emergencies off Canada’s west coast

109-container cargo spill renews First Nations’ calls to revolutionize the way we deal with maritime emergencies off Canada’s west coast


VICTORIA — More than 100 canisters are drifting like man-made icebergs off the coast of British Columbia this week, some washing up on the hitherto pristine shores of Cape Scott in northern Vancouver Island.

These are the remnants of the last marine accident on Canada’s west coast – and exactly what First Nations coastal communities were concerned about.

The First Nations most exposed to such disasters are sounding the alarm: the risk of maritime accidents is only increasing, they say, and Canada’s ability to respond is going in the opposite direction.

Chief Councilor Marilyn Slett of the Heiltsuk First Nation in northern British Columbia said a marine accident that dumped 109 containers off Vancouver Island this week brought back painful memories in her community, when in 2016, a tugboat sank and dumped 110,000 liters of fuel and other liquids into traditional fishing waters. The US company that owns the boat has paid a fine of $ 2.9 million for the spill, which decimated a fishing area and destroyed a Heiltsuk plan for a clam fishery.

The federal government must step up its efforts, she said, and follow through on Indigenous-led support plans to address gaps in Canada’s maritime emergency response systems – plans that have been in place for decades. years but not yet fully funded.

“It has been devastating for our community. It affected a major harvest area for our community that we haven’t been able to harvest since, ”she said of the 2016 barge sinking in an interview.

“We certainly know this is an investment, but protecting our coasts and waterways in the midst of incidents like this and increased traffic (oil and sea) – these guys investment is really needed. “

The need to fill the gaps in this emergency response capability became evident this week when a vessel encountered problems off the coast of British Columbia.

The Zim Kingston, a container ship bound for Vancouver from Pusan, was caught in dangerous weather conditions and lost 109 containers near the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Two of the containers are known to contain a dangerous substance called potassium amylxanthate, which is a material used in mining. The rest contains elements not yet identified.

After losing the cargo, the ship dropped anchor to take refuge off Victoria and quickly caught fire. It is still unclear how or why the ship caught fire.

In order to extinguish the blaze, a response command team made up of provincial and federal officials as well as local First Nations assembled all emergency response vessels readily available on the south coast of British Columbia. And it is now clear that luck played a disproportionate role in containing the blaze. A Canadian Navy firefighting vessel was the first on the scene, but two vessels were instrumental in the firefighting response were private sector vessels owned by Maersk, which were in dock in Victoria after participating in an ocean clean-up initiative.

“We are truly extremely fortunate that these two tugs are nearby,” said Mariah McCooey, superintendent of marine search and rescue with the Victoria-based Canadian Coast Guard.

Smoke is seen rising from the side of the Zim Kingston container ship off the coast of British Columbia on October 24, 2021.

Two tugs built by Atlantic Towing, under contract for use by the Coast Guard, are “also extremely capable,” McCooey said. One of these boats helped with the firefighting efforts, but it was not available as quickly as the Maersk ships.

This highlights a bigger problem within the Canadian Coast Guard: its ships are aging, plans to replace them are delayed, and the loss of more capacity could hamper the agency’s ability to respond to maritime emergencies.

Gerald Graham, a marine consultant specializing in oil spills, was tracking the location of the Atlantic tugs on the day of the fire and said none were positioned on the south coast that day – from where the delay.

“What this shows me is that the two Coast Guards (the US and the Canadian groups) – they need to build up their response capability,” Graham said. “The first thing the Canadian Coast Guard can do is make sure the salvage tugs are here on the south coast where they belong. “

A 2021 Auditor General’s report on Canada’s Shipbuilding Strategy found that any further delay in the shipbuilding process for the Canadian Navy and Coast Guard could result in older ships being decommissioned before a replacement is available.

“The late delivery of ships for the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard could jeopardize Canada’s ability to conduct critical operations,” the report said. “These operations support Navy peace, defense and security missions in Canada and around the world, as well as search and rescue, icebreaking and other Coast Guard operations aimed at ensuring safety. in Canadian waters.

People clean up the shoreline near where the tug Nathan E. Stewart ran aground in Heiltsuk territory in 2016.

In a statement sent to The Star, the Coast Guard wrote that its ability to respond to emergencies on the BC coast is good.

“The Canadian Coast Guard is ready and equipped to protect sailors and the marine environment on the West Coast, including Indigenous coastal communities and surrounding waters,” the statement said. The two Atlantic tugs, he said, respond to the “immediate need to increase emergency response capacity in the region”.

The Coast Guard also described a number of partnerships with Indigenous communities, including Coast Guard Auxiliary Stations, which are voluntary organizations supported by the Coast Guard, in the territorial waters of seven First Nations.

Yet at least two countries say the Coast Guard could go further in its partnerships.

The Coast Guard, in 2020 and 2021 respectively, signed memoranda of understanding with the Pacheedaht First Nation in southern Vancouver Island and the Heiltsuk First Nation on the central coast of British Columbia, promising to develop maritime emergency response centers.

The Pacheedaht agreement commits to building a maritime security center in Pacheedaht territory, which would be operated by the Canadian Coast Guard for search and rescue initiatives and emergency response, such as cleaning up spills from oil. The Heiltsuk Accord commits to developing a pilot Marine Emergency Response Team (MERT) program, training and equipping members of the nation in oil spill response and create a potential roadmap for partnerships with other nations along the coast. Of British Columbia’s 198 distinct First Nations, more than a quarter are coastal.

Neither the Pacheedaht nor Heiltsuk accords are as advanced as the nation’s leaders would like. And the Zim Kingston incident explains why these projects should be scaled up more urgently, the nations say.

“The Pacheedaht First Nation (NFP) is very concerned that there are currently no marine security resources in the Port Renfrew area to respond to marine incidents such as the current vessel fire. – Containers M / V Zim Kingston and the cargo dump off the west coast of Vancouver. Island, ”Pacheedaht Nation Chief Councilor Jeff Jones wrote in a statement to The Star this week.

“The NFP has spent a lot of time and effort in reaching an agreement with the Government of Canada for the construction of a maritime security center. To date, the only result has been years and years of fruitless discussions with the Government of Canada, and we still do not have a Maritime Safety Center, or even an agreement to build one.

Since 2017.

Last year, the government signed an agreement to fund a pilot project loosely based on the report, which would provide emergency response training and search and rescue resources to the nation, with the aim of creating a model partnership between the Coast Guard and Coastal First Nations in the future.

Slett, chief adviser to Heiltsuk, said that due to the deal training has started and the country is considering acquiring ships.

But she says the level of government support is yet to match the risk posed to her community.

“We absolutely need more support for the Native Maritime Response Center so that it can be operational,” she said. “It fills in the gaps (left by the coast guard). Our communities, we are the first responders when things happen in our traditional territories.

Heiltsuk’s IMRC proposal estimates their annual operating costs would be $ 6.8 million and the center’s development would cost an additional $ 115.5 million.

When the 2016 spill happened, it was Heiltsuk on the beach, cleaning up fuel and trying to reclaim their previously pristine land, Slett said.

“It’s local knowledge, it’s a human capacity. We have been stewards of our land and our sea for millennia, ”she said.

“For something to be successful, we have to be able to work together. “