OLD MASSETT, British Columbia – Canadian coast guard officials secured a towline to a Russian container ship carrying hundreds of tons of fuel as it drifted without power in rough seas off British Columbia's pristine northern coast. The move lessened the threat of the ship running aground, hitting the rocks and causing a spill.
The Canadian Forces' joint rescue coordination center said the Russian carrier Simushir lost power off Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, as it made its way from Everett in Washington state to Russia.
The Council of the Haida Nation said late Friday the Coast Guard Ship Gordon Reid managed to secure a towline and the two vessels were moving away from the coastline at Gwaii Haanas at 1.5 knots. The statement noted the situation remained highly tenuous, and the outcome was subject to weather. Another coast guard ship was expected to arrive early Saturday and attempt to assist in towing the vessel to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, depending on weather.
Sub Lt. Melissa Kia, of Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, said three more vessels, including a U.S. Coast Guard ship, are on their way to assist. She said the Gordon Reid is towing the container ship slowly and while the danger has lessened, it is not over.
The ship, originally nine miles (14.5 kilometers) offshore, was drifting northwest in stormy seas Friday, away from shore, but Roger Girouard, an assistant commissioner with the Canadian Coast Guard, said it had no propulsion. The ship lost power late Thursday, officials said.
The fear of oil spills is especially acute in British Columbia, where residents remember the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989. Such worries have fed fierce opposition — particularly from environmentalists and Canada's native tribes — to a current proposal to build a pipeline that would carry oil from Canada's Alberta oil sands to the Pacific Coast for shipment to Asia. Opponents say the proposed pipeline would bring about 220 large oil tankers a year to the province's coast.
British Columbia Environment Minister Mary Polak said she hopes the incident underlines for the Canadian federal government the need to develop a world leading response to possible tanker spills.
The president of the Council of the Haida Nation, warned earlier Friday that a storm coming into the area was expected to push the ship onto the rocky shore.
"If it hits where it's going to hit, this ship is going to be torn apart," Pete Lantin said. "We expect a catastrophic event and a huge disaster on our hands."
About 5,000 people live on the island and fish for food nearby, Lantin said.
Girouard said their top concern was the fuel and diesel oil onboard and the risk that the ship could hit the rocks and break apart.
He earlier said if the ship did come apart the rough seas would break up the oil "so we would have an ally there. It's cold weather so we don't have a lot of migratory species right at the moment."
He said they have been already moving assets to the region to respond should the break apart and spill.
Acting Canadian Sub. Lt. Ron MacDougall said the Simushir, which is about 440 feet (135 meters) long, was carrying "a range of hydrocarbons, mining materials and other related chemicals." That included 400 tons of bunker oil and 50 tons of diesel.
The vessel is not a tanker but rather a container ship. In comparison, the Exxon Valdez, spilled out 35,000 metric tons of oil.
A spokesman for Russian shipping firm SASCO, the owners of the vessel, said it is carrying 298 containers of mining equipment in addition to heavy bunker fuel as well as diesel oil onboard for the voyage.
The U.S. Coast Guard had a helicopter on standby in the event that the entire crew needed to be pulled off the ship. Officials said the captain was evacuated after being injured, but they were given no further medical details.
Rough weather was a concern. MacDougall said there were 18-mph (29-kph) winds with high seas. Environment Canada had issued a storm warning for much of the northern coast, including the area around Haida Gwaii.
The Haida Nation said it had set up an emergency command center in Old Massett, located on the northern tip of Haida Gwaii, in case the vessel runs aground.
The Simushir is registered in Kholmsk, Russia, and owned by SASCO, also known as Sakhalin Shipping Company, according to the company's website. The SASCO website says the ship was built in the Netherlands in 1998.