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Close call: Ship runs aground near Prince Rupert

The vessel’s draft – that’s the vertical distance of the ship below the water line – is about 13 meters, which approximately half the draft of a typical large oil tanker, such as the kind being proposed to move diluted bitumen from the oil sands through the Douglas Channel to the south, past a maze of rocky islands and out to sea.  At 68,000 tonnes, the Hanjin Geneva weighs in at a quarter the tonnage of a typical 300,000-tonne crude tanker.

Picture a vessel “hung up” on the bottom, gradually tipping at some angle as the tide lets out, the weight of the ship and its cargo stressing the ship’s hull.  The tidal range in the Northwest coast is about 5 meters.  In part, it’s the associated strong tidal currents that make the North coast of BC such a biodiversity-rich ecosystem, with these currents circulating nutrients and maintaining critical habitat for important species such as salmon and herring, upon which cultures and economies depend.

It happens that ship was maneuvering to avoid a small fishing vessel, and chose a course that took it directly toward the mainland, adjacent to a tiny Kitson Island, a Marine Provincial Park.  The area is well known to vessel users and sees regular marine traffic -fishing vessels, recreational crafts, ferries, container, coal, grain and other large vessels.  In fact, the grounding occurred within a few km of the site where a slew of new marine transport infrastructure is being proposed, including LNG terminals, expansion of coal shipments, and a Potash export terminal.  The intensity of marine traffic is set to increase dramatically in this region, literally on the doorstep of the Pacific-Asia trade corridor.

WWF-Canada is working to ensure that this doorstep does not become a doormat, through pursuing smart oceans management, improving coordination and best practices across industries and with community interests, and preventing the unacceptable risks that come with oil tankers from ever being introduced into this extraordinary coast.

Tuesday night we got lucky.  According to Environment Canada’s marine weather record, the wind speed was moderate – gusts to 15 knots (27 km/h), wave height probably less than a meter at the grounding site.  But I see that a hurricane warning is in effect for this evening, with winds reaching 64 knots (115 km/h), which can drive waves several metres high.  Not at all uncommon for the North Coast during winter, and a large part of the reason that parts of BC’s coast have been described as among the most dangerous waters for navigation in the world.  Certainly enough to increase the risk of incidents, severity of consequences, and difficulty in responding.

Thanks to the hard work of local authorities, the vessel was successfully refloated and escorted into harbour.  But the event should be a wake-up call like no other to those who claim that risks of oil tanker spills can be successfully mitigated.