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Derelict boats left to pollute the Fraser River

Lack of regulation has meant more abandoned vessels; Federal government nixes private members bill

It took a boat owner at Shelter Island Marina in east Richmond more than three weeks to pull his sunken, 103-foot Western Crusader out of the Fraser River as it, allegedly, continued to leak fuel, following a spill estimated to be up to 200 gallons.

According to other boaters at the dock, the Canadian Coast Guard failed to adequately respond to the spill. Furthermore, the length of time it took to pull the vessel out may be symptomatic of the federal government’s polluter pay model when it comes to derelict boats, which are reported to be a growing problem in the river and along the West Coast.

According to boat owner, Chad Hardwick, the entire incident on May 12 was a wake up call to the fact no agency, public or otherwise, is presently capable of containing fuel spills, however big or small, on the fast-moving Fraser.

“My attitude towards the Coast Guard really changed when this boat went down here. I couldn’t believe it; the lack of effort on their part was dismal,” said Hardwick.

The marina resident of 15 years said even relatively empty tanks would have contained much more fuel than the 80 litres the boat owner claimed was on board, or the 100 litres reported to be “contained and recovered” by the Coast Guard. Hardwick pegged the spill at 750 litres.

Fellow boater Ken Schwantje also said it was much more than what was initially reported to media.

“If it was only 20 gallons of fuel, I doubt it would leak for this long,” he said.

Chad Hardwick

The Coast Guard stated in an email it monitored the Western Crusader for the weeks following the incident and saw no pollution. As such, it was no longer responsible for the boat.

The delay to pull the boat out may have been avoided if a private members bill (C-638 by MP Jean Crowder) wasn’t voted down in the House of Commons in May. That bill sought to amend the Canada Shipping Act to make the Coast Guard the receiver of wreckage in certain circumstances (removal costs would still apply to owners). But Conservative politicians voted against it, citing arguments that boaters ought to be responsible for their own boats and the added responsibilities would hamper other Coast Guard duties.

Richmond Centre MP Alice Wong stated, via an email from her director of communications, that boat owners are indeed solely responsible. She cited a new Transport Canada website that outlines boat owner responsibilities.

According to Port Metro Vancouver there are 151 derelict boat sites on the river and 112 have been “addressed,” meaning the boats are either removed or not a threat to navigation, and negotiations are taking place with the owners. PMV stated it couldn’t give details on the addressed sites.

Presently, boat owners do not require insurance via Transport Canada. That’s why they get dumped in the river, said Hardwick. 

“There isn’t any regulation.” Notably, the Western Crusader owner didn’t have insurance, but eventually hired a crane to pull his boat out.

Hardwick said what’s just as concerning as the inadequate measures to prevent such boating accidents is the Coast Guard’s apparent lack of resources.

For instance, he said in June, both of the Coast Guard’s B.C. base stations lost radio transmission capabilities. 

“The entire coast was dark for three or four hours, twice. So, so much for that.”

The Coast Guard never responded to the News’ inquiries on that incident.

Hardwick said PMV and the Coast Guard’s response to the Western Crusader was more a media exercise for CTV News cameras than it was a genuine response to the fuel spill.

He said when the hovercraft arrived five hours after the spill, it only served to blow the fuel around. Furthermore, the booms did little to catch the fuel.

“The next day they showed up and threw a few (absorbent) pads on. They didn’t even have tools. They went onto that (moored, derelict) barge out there (along the dock) and one of them grabbed a potato masher (from the boat’s kitchen) so they didn’t have to touch the things. Yah, they’re really well equipped.” chuckled Hardwick.

Bigger risks at play 

While small, abandoned boats pose environmental threats, bigger fuel-delivering ships may be on their way to the river.  

On an annual basis, Fraser Surrey Docks wants to export 80 shipments of coal, Vancouver International Airport is backing a project that could see 26 jet fuel deliveries, and Wespac Midstream is now seeking an expanded liquefied natural gas plant in Delta that could see 120 tanker runs. That adds up to more than one fuel-delivering Panamax-size tanker on the river every day where there are presently none.

At this time, a spill response on the river could take several hours, according to an eight page summary report to Richmond’s safety committee on the 2,700-litre bunker oil spill by the MV Marathassa in English Bay last month. 

Deborah Proctor, the city’s manager of emergency programs, stated a response on the Fraser would be “similar” to what was experienced during the Marathassa spill.

That response was highly criticized by the public, media, the City of Vancouver and Premier Christy Clark.

“It’s a real wakeup call. They keep telling us they have world-class oil response. Let me tell you, you get a spill on this river, the amount of things you can do to clean that up — zero; you can do nothing to clean that up; it’s impossible with the flow of this river,” said Hardwick, a marine technician.

Stories such as Hardwick’s are no surprise to retired Department of Fisheries biologist Otto Langer, who noted the governments’ claims of “world-class” spill response is “crass propaganda.”

“With each passing minute (in storms, or fast moving water), or in each passing hour the probability of containing the oil and getting it out of the water is greatly diminished,” he said.

“The impact of an oil spill into an estuary of the world’s largest salmon river should not be underestimated,” said Langer.

Meanwhile, Richmond’s safety committee chair Coun. Bill McNulty said he was pleased with Proctor’s report.

“We’re more prepared for this than what we are given credit for sometimes in the media. …You’ve got the response times and structures in place and I think that needs to be put on the record,” said McNulty to Proctor.

Proctor noted the City of Richmond would not play a significant role in a cleanup, other than communications and closing the city’s irrigation pumps to protect farmland. She said the Coast Guard would be the main organizer as it would activate the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, an entity owned and operated by oil companies. WCMRC claims it’s certified to contain about 12 million litres of fuel.

The Coast Guard is one of several agencies with response material, although it couldn’t readily provide an inventory of material.

Proctor noted spill modeling of jet fuel on the river done by jet fuel terminal proponent, the Vancouver Airport Fuel Facility Corporation, indicates the fuel “would reach Richmond’s shores within a few hours.”