COLUMN: A lesson in need for preparedness

The disabled, and subsequently rescued Russian container freighter over the weekend was a huge wake-up call to British Columbians ...

On the Other Hand by Mark Rushton

The disabled, and subsequently rescued Russian container freighter over the weekend was a huge wake-up call to British Columbians and for the federal government.

The Simushir appears to be a modern, well-maintained ship, yet for some reason lost power and was essentially adrift only 12 or so miles off the coast of Haida Gwaii.

The stars were aligned, it seems – no powerful storm hampering recovery efforts, a fortuitous visit to Prince Rupert by an American heavy rescue tug and a Canadian Coast Guard vessel in proximity.

The Coast Guard, despite breaking a towline two or three times, did manage at one nautical mile an hour to pull the Simushir a little further out to sea before the rescue tug completed its 24-hour trip from Rupert to the stricken vessel.

That the Russian ship was a container cargo carrier rather than an oil tanker was also a bit of a blessing. Had it run aground, it was ‘only’ carrying hundreds of tonnes of oil rather than the 50-million-plus gallons of crude that a tanker has within its holds.

And while we all remember the devastation that occurred in Alaska when the Exxon Valdez struck a rock in Prince William Sound, we tend to forget that every day there are many tankers cruising our coastline carrying vast quantities of crude bound from Alaska to Washington and California ports.

Anyone living on the western slope of Sumas Mountain in Abbotsford can see the lights and flares of Cherry Point, Washington’s largest oil refinery, just seven miles south of the Peace Arch. Tankers that have sailed along our coast, renowned in the annals of maritime history as the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” discharge their loads there daily.

From now until spring, the coastal storms will be relentless, and should one of those hundreds of tankers that ply the Alaska run suffer the same mechanical failure as the Simushir, the potential for an environmental calamity is huge. Except for the waters in the vicinity of Vancouver, Canada has no heavy rescue tugs on our coast.

What happened this weekend should – must – be a warning shot across the bow of the federal government as it presses to have “in our national interest,” the Northern Gateway oil pipeline deliver Alberta crude our north coast.

Adding hundreds more tankers to the hundreds already plying our coast makes the need for large rescue tugs mandatory, and not just if and when the oil starts to flow through Enbridge’s pipeline.

We can’t continue to rely on luck that an American tug will be in the vicinity, and we can’t rely on Canadian Coast Guard vessels that have neither the power nor the equipment to adequately rescue massive tankers, or for that matter, the 137-metre Simushir. Broken towlines and one mile an hour prove that out.

The feds have budgeted billions on replacement vessels for the Canadian Navy, and are spending a great many more millions trying to keep our second-hand submarines afloat, yet one of the world’s most pristine coastlines is under daily threat of environmental catastrophe without any protection.

The Simushir was a valuable lesson in what can go wrong while, through luck and circumstance, disaster was averted.

I would like to think the federal government has learned from this, and will act with speed to acquire such rescue vessels, and in the meantime, contract a commercial tug to be on standby on our northern coast.

Otherwise, a massive environmental disaster on our shorelines will kiss off Northern Gateway “national interest” forever.

markrushton@abbynews.com