Nathan Cullen calls Canada's so-called 'world class' marine safety 'a cruel joke'

In a remote area, help is a long way away. 

Photo By Department of National Defence

Nathan Cullen had just got off the phone with folks on Haida Gwaii.  "There is a sense of temporary relief but continued vigilance," the NDP MP from Northern BC posted on Facebook.

"Apparently the towing rope was very hard to secure and snapped three times during the towing. Imagine if this was a massive supertanker - I can't."

Earlier he commented, "If this isn't a wake up call to Canadians about what can go wrong with ships on the west coast - I wonder what will it take. The Haida are exactly right - our so-called 'world class' marine safety is a cruel joke."

Fears high winds would blow the ship aground and leak fuel held shadows of the past. In March of 2006,  tragedy occurred when a BC Ferry passenger vessel ran aground on Gil Island in Wright Sound. The culprit was human error.

With 101 persons aboard, The Queen of the North failed to make a planned course change. Two passengers were never seen again. Karl Lilgert, fourth officer of the Queen of the North ferry was  found guilty of criminal negligence causing death in May of 2013.

The Toronto Star reported then that Crown prosecutors argued that Lilgert neglected to steer the ship because he was distracted by quartermaster Karen Briker, who he had been having a sexual affair with up until just weeks earlier.

The voyage marked the first time the former lovers had worked alone together since the breakup, after both their spouses found out about the affair. The pair were either having sex or fighting on the ferry bridge when the crash took place, the prosecution argued.

Yesterday's incident raised fears that the Russian ship would run aground on Haida Gwaii and highlighted a gap in emergency preparedness in the stormy waters of this season in northern B.C.

Haida Gwaii Watchmen program manager Anita (Upsy) Moody told the Vancouver Observer on Friday that the communities near Haida Gwaii were worried about the oil-laden Russian container ship adrift off the west coast of Haida Gwaii.

"A lot of people are worried -- so am I. It's pretty sad news to hear," Moody told the Vancouver Observer from Skidegate, in northern B.C.

 Haida Council President Peter Lantin told the CBC the coast guard was unprepared for an incident like this, and that promises of "world class oil tanker safety" were not to be believed. Around 225 large oil tankers would go through the waters near Haida Gwaii if Northern Gateway, a bitumen pipeline proposed by Enbridge, were to be built.

The sinking of the Queen of the North ferry, in locals' view, was a pivotal moment, Jenny Uechi recently wrote after visiting Hartley Bay. It  convinced residents that authorities would be unable to deal with a large scale accident in the remote northern B.C. channels. The ferry accident, caused by human error, left the ferry submerged 1,400 feet underwater.

Despite public outcry, no authorities have removed the ferry, even as it continues to leak fuel into a major whale habitat. The chaotic aftermath of the accident made many residents wary of Enbridge's claims about tanker safety along the route, even though the ferry was unrelated to the Northern Gateway proposal. If the pipeline were approved, 220 tankers would be coming to the nearby waters every year. The ferry incident not only brought oil tankers into sharp focus for many in Hartley Bay, but also changed the way people dealt with large industrial projects in their territory.  "It all changed because of BC Ferries," said Marven Robinson, a Hartley Bay resident and band councillor.

He explained how local residents tried valiantly to heed the call for help, as the ferry sank. They were the only help for hours, he said.  He spoke of how long it took for officials to arrive and how impossible the clean-up operation would be should an oil tanker ever run aground.

Marven Robinson, photographed by Jenny Uechi

In early hours, emergency averted

A Canadian Coast Guard vessel began towing the Russian container ship early this morning.  It was carrying hundreds of tonnes of fuel, drifting without power in BC’s northern coast on Friday.

“We have good news this morning, the Simushir is now 15 nautical miles offshore and is under a secure tow," said president of the Haida Nation kil tlaats 'gaa Peter Lantin in a press release.

The rescue process began Friday evening when the crew of the coast guard vessel Gordon Reid managed to secure a tether to the Russian ship Simushir, according to The Canadian Press.

The 135-metre cargo ship, which had left Everett, Washington heading for Russia, was adrift without power off the west coast of Haida Gwaii, igniting fear that the vessel could run aground, break apart and spill hundreds of tonnes of fuel.

Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the American Coast Guard cutter Spar were to arrive on scene, along with the another tug later Saturday morning to provide any additional assistance, said The Canadian Forces’ joint rescue coordination cente’s Sub Lt. Melissa Kia.

All three vessels had towing capability, she said, but may not all have the equipment to tow a large ship.

A spokesman with the Canadian Forces' Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria told news sources at 11:30 a.m. that the Gordon Reid had tried to attach lines to the ship three times, but that all three lines had "parted."

“I think regardless of what happens this is a good training exercise and an eye opener,” Lantin said. “You know it really shows us how little we’re prepared ... and how much work we have to do to prepare, you know, if it happens again or when it happens again.”

Wally Bolton, above, isn't keen on oil tankers travelling through waters his family depends upon.  Photo by Jenny Uechi

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