Coast guard underestimated risk of fuel spill, mariner says

A veteran West Coast mariner says the Canadian Coast Guard significantly underestimated the ecological consequences of a possible fuel spill from a container ship off the coast of Haida Gwaii last week.

“Everyone who loves this coast was just holding their breath,” said Brian Falconer, reached by cellphone north of Bella Bella, where he has spent two stormy weeks on the Achiever, the research vessel of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

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Falconer, who was captain of the 92-foot Maple Leaf schooner for 20 years, said the environmental threat posed by the Simushir was much worse than was stated Friday by coast guard assistant commissioner Roger Girouard.

The Simushir drifted without power in rough seas for close to 20 hours. If it had broken up, the coast guard would have had to arrange the cleanup of 400 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of diesel fuel.

“The seas would break up the oil, so we’d have an ally there. It’s cool weather, so we don’t have a lot of migratory species right at the moment,” Girouard said Friday.

Falconer agreed that the cold, rough seas would break up the oil into smaller pieces more quickly, but that would not mean the oil would disappear, he said. “It takes a long time for that to happen. In the meantime, the oil would have fouled some of the richest intertidal life in the world.”

The seas are also thick with birds, he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of birds. Western grebes are migrating right now. Rhinoceros auklets chicks have just fledged and they’re all around.”

The Achiever research vessel has been in Hecate Strait for the past two weeks because of the large concentrations of marine mammals, including humpbacks, fin whales and sperm whales.

“All of that is there and it’s just a really rich time of the year,” Falconer said.

“What really bothers me is they’re setting up a false sense that we can actually do something about an oil spill. The reality is we won’t be able to do anything.”

For the past two weeks, Falconer has experienced storm after storm with seas greater than seven, eight and nine metres.

“Weather is weather and there’s nothing you can do,” said Falconer, adding that it was fortunate for the container-ship rescue operation that the wind shifted. “The west coast of Haida Gwaii is so wildly rugged, that ship would have broken within hours in a storm with gale-force winds. You can have all the equipment and procedures you want. There’s no response possible in those kind of conditions.”

He predicts the coast guard would be helpless if a supertanker got into trouble.

The Simushir, which was carrying mining equipment and chemicals, is only a fraction of the size of one of the crude-oil carriers that would be needed if Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline is built, he said.

Falconer pointed to other incidents where response crews were unable to help.

In 1993, the Braer tanker ran aground off the Shetland Isles, spilling almost 85,000 tonnes of crude oil.

“It lost power and a giant trawler tried to get lines on it, but couldn’t,” Falconer said.

On Dec. 31, 2012, the oil rig Kulluk went aground on the southeast shore of Sitkalidak Island, south of the island of Kodiak in the Gulf of Alaska, despite rescue attempts from five ships. None of them could keep their tow lines from breaking, he said.

In November 2012, a deep-sea cargo ship, Tern Arrow, lost engine power in heavy seas and 40-knot winds near Laredo Sound south of Kitimat. The 617-foot ship drifted for almost three hours before establishing emergency power at 5 p.m. and heading to open water.

The Simushir was carrying just a few hundred tonnes of crude oil, said Falconer.

“Can you imagine two million barrels of bitumen in the same situation? It’s unimaginable.”

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