Freighter crash 'foreshadowing'

Incident shows dangers of oil tankers in northern waters, First Nations say

A damaged freighter that limped into Kitimat this week after running into a rocky outcrop of land in the narrow Douglas Channel is a graphic illustration of why supertankers should never be allowed in the dangerous waters north of Vancouver Island, say First Nations bands.

The Petersfield, a Bahama-registered 187-metre bulk freighter, lost steering just south of Grant Point, about two hours south of Kitimat, and struck the shore, mashing the front of the vessel.

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In Hartley Bay, where the Gitga'at First Nation is still struggling with fallout from the Queen of the North sinking, there's a sense of deja vu, said teacher and band councillor Cameron Hill.

The Petersfield accident is an ugly reminder of the B.C. ferry that struck Gil Island and sank more than three years ago, Hill said.

"This is exactly why the citizens of Hartley Bay don't want tanker traffic going through our area. This is the most obvious foreshadowing we have had," he said. "If that freighter had hit any harder it could have spilled its fuel and it would have been catastrophic for our area."

The Gitga'at are among groups fighting the proposed Enbridge Gateway pipeline, which would transport oil and condensate between the Alberta oilsands and Kitimat. The oil would then be shipped from the port by supertankers. Opponents say the risk of oil spills in sensitive ecosystems abutting the Great Bear Rainforest is huge.

"We have always known that oil and gas tankers in these waters were a horrible and frightening idea. Hopefully the Petersfield incident will help Canada and the world understand that too," Hill said.

Chief Councillor Dolores Pollard of the Haisla First Nation said the accident confirms the need for a public inquiry into any plans to ship oil through Haisla territory.

"We have the right to free, prior and informed consent to a project such as Enbridge and we intend to exercise that right fully. Sadly, this accident illustrates exactly why our concerns are justified," Pollard said.

"The risks of shipping oil through our territories are real and the impacts of an accident or an oil spill would be devastating to us all."

Steve Greenaway, Enbridge vice-president of public and government affairs, said safety measures would be in place if the proposed terminal in Kitimat becomes a reality. An escort tug would be tethered to the tanker to maneuver the vessel in a situation similar to the Petersfield incident, he said. "The tethered-tug model isn't going to be cheap, but it is absolutely critical and we wouldn't consider moving tankers up the Douglas Channel without that," he said, adding the vessels would be double-hull tankers.

But Will Horter of the Dogwood Initiative, an environmental group that has fought the Enbridge proposal, scoffed at the assurances.

"The only fail-safe oil-tanker system that exists is in Enbridge's imagination," he said. "This is just a warning shot. These are the fourth most dangerous waters in the world and if something like this occurs and the steering goes out or there's human error during bad weather, you are looking at devastation of the whole region."

The Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Petersfield accident.

jlavoie@tc.canwest.com

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