By Alison Bate

When a ship gets into trouble off the remote west coast of Vancouver Island, there are very few rescue services around.

The province relies on a commercial tug in the area being able to help out. Currently, major seagoing tugs carry electronic tracking devices so they can be located in real-time on computer charts. This information is provided to US and Canadian Marine Vessel Traffic Services to refer to if there is an emergency request for tug assistance. This is known as a “tug-of-opportunity”.

Apart from the fact that there may not be a tug capable of holding a large ship cruising by at the right time, there are several other flaws in this arrangement.

As consultant Stafford Reid points out in a July 2008 report: “This arrangement also assumes that the tug has a place to harbour its tow (logs, barge), and that the environmental conditions for rescue do not put the crew in danger.”

“Lastly, the tug-of-opportunity relies on the captain and crew to have the training, skills, and equipment to ‘snag’ a vessel and to keep it ‘at station’ until additional assistance arrives or a place of refuge decision can be made on where to tow the vessel.”

In his report, Major Marine Casualty Risk and Response Preparedness in British Columbia, Reid looks at what might happen if a 67,000-deadweight container ship carrying 5,000 containers lost engine power during a severe storm off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

He notes that containerships often travel within 20 to 30 nautical miles offshore, and there is no guarantee that a tug coming to the rescue would actually be able to fix a line and hold the vessel at a steady state (at station) in severe storm conditions.

If the vessel did run aground, it might release 1,500 metric tons (11,500 barrels) of heavy bunker fuel oil and 800 metric tons (6,100 barrels) of marine diesel. In addition, 500 containers might fall overboard.

Nootka Island lies off Vancouver Island, to the west of Gold River, and spill response in such a remote, exposed area would be difficult. Although heavy surf would help clean up the oil naturally in exposed regions, a lot of semi-protected environments, created by small islands and reefs, would be affected. Birds and mammals, including marbled murrelets and sea otters, would be at risk. It’s an area with strong First Nations interests, which would also need to be respected.

Reid says that containers that fall overboard are a pollution and navigation hazard in themselves, and several are likely to have hazardous material products inside.

“There is no salvage plan for British Columbia on how to track and remove floating and/or stranded containers – let alone any cargo materials released from any damaged containers,” warns Reid.

As well, although B.C. has set up a Marine Chemical Emergency Response regime for dealing with hazardous materials, it has not been adopted or tested by industry or the federal government.

He says the gaps in B.C.’s oil spill response regime have been studied several times, but nothing has been done to correct them.

“Since 1995, Canada’s west coast has only had a few near misses from drifting vessels, and as a result the public and political pressure in British Columbia quickly waned.”

Reid makes several recommendations aimed at decreasing the risk of a grounding of a major vessel. In the report, prepared for Living Oceans Society, he suggests:

* The Canadian shipping industry should share in the funding of the Neah Bay dedicated tug in Washington State as it confers a direct benefit to the industry and to the protection of British Columbia’s south coast. A dedicated rescue tug has been stationed either part-time or full-time at Neah Bay, on the Olympic Peninsula since 1999.

* A dedicated rescue (assist) tug should be considered for the central coast of British Columbia. The tug’s size, specifications, equipment and training should include salvage, cargo and bunker lightering, firefighting and other response capabilities.

Provincial and federal response set up differently

In his 144-page report, Reid also criticizes the complex web of agencies involved in handling any marine oil spill, saying it is inefficient, increasingly under-staffed and that agencies often work in totally different ways.

Typically, the Canadian Coast Guard is responsible (the lead agency) for a spill in the water, while the B.C. Ministry of the Environment is responsible for spills on land.

However, the way the federal and provincial agencies do business after an oil spill are not “on the same playing field.” This means that when spills in the water reach land, jurisdictional and communication problems can easily arise.

The B.C. Ministry of the Environment uses the same structure as in the U.S., known as the Incident Command System. In this method, all the parties involved, including the Responsible Party (ship owner/operator), work together in a unified, shared command structure.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Coast Guard uses a totally different system known as the Response Management System, where it is solely in charge of making decisions.

Reid warns that the lack of harmony and lack of a positive relationship between the province and federal governments could seriously undermine effective response to a vessel casualty or marine oil spill.

He adds: “It doesn’t serve industry nor coastal communities well to let complacency slip in. British Columbians should expect worldwide “best achievable” practices to be used both in vessel casualty prevention and response measures.”

Earlier posts:
What if a tanker heading for Kitimat hit another vessel?
Tug escort rules vary in B.C.

Download the report:
Major Marine Casualty Risk and Response Preparedness in British Columbia (large PDF file)