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Province orders Union Bay ship-breaking company to stop release of pollution

The Environment Ministry has also ordered Deep Water Recovery to take steps to monitor and report discharges from the site, or face penalties up to $300,000 in fines and six months of jail time

Deep Water Recovery, the company taking apart derelict vessels in Union Bay, has been hit with a pollution abatement order from the province.

The company is illegally allowing toxic effluent to run into Baynes Sound and the marine environment, B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy has found.

The ministry has ordered Deep Water Recovery to immediately stop the release of pollution and take additional steps to monitor and report discharges from the site. If not, the company could face penalties up to $300,000 in fines and six months of jail time, according to the order issued on March 15.

Discharges from the ship-breaking operations are collected in sump pits, which occasionally overflow with untreated effluent. Testing of that runoff confirmed high concentrations of pollutants, including copper, iron, zinc and cadmium.

“I am satisfied with reasonable grounds that a substance is causing pollution on or about lands occupied by Deep Water Recovery Ltd,” wrote Jennifer Mayberry, director of operations and compliance for the Environment Ministry of Environment.

The company can appeal the order within 30 days. Deep Water Recovery director Mark Jurisich did not respond to The Discourse’s request for an interview by publication time.

“We’ve been saying this for four years, that they are contaminating Baynes Sound,” said Union Bay resident Ashlee Gerlock, who is concerned for the health of her eight-year old sonh.

The abatement order is good news, but it’s been a long fight, Gerlock said.

“It is good news. But at the same time, it’s four years of bad news.”

The regulatory regime governing Deep Water Recovery’s operations is extraordinarily complex.

Generally, the federal government manages what happens offshore, including the transport of vessels to and from the site. It also has responsibilities related to fish habitat in tidal waters.

The province manages the company’s foreshore lease, which covers activities in the water and below the high tide mark. But the land higher up is privately owned, and governed by the land-use rules of the Comox Valley Regional District. The Indigenous land and water rights of the K’ómoks First Nation overlay all of this.

These jurisdictions have all been involved with policing Deep Water Recovery’s activities and responding to community members’ concerns since the company transformed the site from a log sort to a ship-recycling facility about four years ago. And they’ve occasionally pointed fingers at each other for not doing enough.

On Feb. 20, Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen and Environment Minister George Heyman sent a letter urging the federal government to take more action to regulate the dismantling and recycling of vessels at the site.

The letter is addressed to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Transport Canada.

The provincial government is doing what it can to enforce regulations and respond to concerns in areas under its jurisdiction, the ministers write.

But the federal government also has responsibilities with respect to the operations, and “we remain very concerned that Canada is not actively regulating and communicating your regulatory actions in the marine environment.”

“In a multi-jurisdictional framework such as this, it is critical that municipal, provincial, and federal agencies work together to ensure that the interests of the public, First Nations, and the environment are protected,” the letter says.

Canada, unlike other jurisdictions, has no regulations specific to ship-breaking.

Marilynne Manning, another Union Bay resident, says she’s hoping to see Fisheries and Oceans Canada come to the table on the issue.

“What bothers me the most is the absence of the DFO,” she said.

Craig Macartney, communications advisor for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, wrote in an email to The Discourse that “our assessments did not find any pollution or hazard, either under the Wrecked, Abandoned or Hazardous Vessels Act or the Canada Shipping Act.”

He did not clarify which assessments, but noted that the Canadian Coast Guard does not have jurisdiction over ship-dismantling activities that occur on land.

The Canadian Coast Guard “continues to work with federal and provincial agencies that have related jurisdictions and will intervene if the situation changes and warrants intervention by the CCG,” he said.

However, documents obtained through a freedom of information request indicate that Fisheries and Oceans Canada has taken some enforcement action at the site.

In 2022, DFO officials determined that Deep Water Recovery harmed fish habitat by mooring vessels and operating machines in the intertidal water.

DFO ordered the company to immediately remove the three vessels grounded on the shore. At a follow-up visit a year later, one of the vessels had been brought up on shore, one had been pulled mostly out of the water and the third remained beached.

Samuel Lafontaine, spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada, wrote in a statement to The Discourse that “ECCC is aware of the issues raised by the Concerned Citizens of Baynes Sound and takes information received from members of the public seriously. ECCC has been regularly monitoring incidents surrounding the shipbreaking facility located on Island Highway South in Union Bay, B.C. and has conducted on-site inspections to verify compliance with the Fisheries Act and CEPA, 1999.”

The Comox Valley Regional District has taken the position that Deep Water Recovery’s ship-breaking activities on land are not compliant with its land-use bylaws. It has asked the Supreme Court of B.C. to force the company to stop dismantling ships at the site. Deep Water Recovery opposes the claim, and the matter is ongoing.

The provincial ministers’ letter also called on the federal government’s help to stop more vessels from arriving at the site. The Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada would have been responsible for authorizing the towing of vessels already at the site, they wrote.

One of those vessels is the Miller Freeman, an end-of-life American fisheries and oceanography research vessel. It caught fire in Seattle in 2013, reportedly spewing toxic chemicals into the air.

Then it ended up in the Fraser River, spotted in New Westminster in 2017 and in Maple Ridge in 2019. After that, it turned up at the Deep Water Recovery site alongside the Surveyor, another former American research ship.

During its auction sale, the services administration confirmed the presence of asbestos in the Miller Freeman, in “pipe insulation, exhaust breech insulation, 9 X 9 floor tile, wallboard on the main deck and higher in the wallboard in the walk-in cooler.”

The services administration warned to “not release fibers by cutting, crushing, sanding, or otherwise altering this property.”

Drone footage shows the Miller Freeman has already been partially dismantled.

Union Bay resident Gerlock said a hazardous waste site “has no business being in Baynes Sound.”

The Discourse asked Transport Canada whether it could find a record of the Miller Freeman and Surveyor crossing the border into Canada.

Sau Sau Liu, a senior communications advisor for Transport Canada, said vessels towed for recycling are typically deregistered, and “the owner was not required to obtain Transport Canada approval to tow vessels to the site.”

She confirmed that the Miller Freeman and Surveyor were deregistered, meaning they no longer fly any country’s flag.

A deregistered vessel is not deemed a Canadian vessel under the Canada Shipping Act, which limits Transport Canada’s regulatory authority, she said, adding that “vessels do not have to declare to Transport Canada that they are being imported for recycling.”

Liu added that in some circumstances, federal legislation can apply — for example, ensuring safety of navigation under the Canadian Navigable Waters Act, or prohibitions against vessel abandonment under the Wrecked, Abandoned or Hazardous Vessels Act.

Other federal legislation, such as the Fisheries Act, prohibits the release or discharge of “unregulated contaminates” into the marine environment.

Gerlock said more needs to be done, and urgently.

“I already see the herring boats, and the DFO out here. Monitoring the sound, right?” she said.

“It needs our protection. Our federal government says it needs to be protected. And then they go and allow this.”

Madeline Dunnett is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with The Discourse. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.