October 18, 2014 8:30 pm
Updated: October 18, 2014 10:19 pm

Tugboat Barbara Foss reaches Russian container ship

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UPDATE: The tugboat “Barbara Foss” has reached the disabled Russian container ship and will begin the towing process. The vessel – carrying hundreds of tons of fuel – was adrift again Saturday.  Officials said there was no immediate risk of it reaching shore, hitting rocks and causing a spill.

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Royal Canadian Navy Lt. Greg Menzies said a tow line from the Coast Guard ship Gordon Reid got detached, but he noted that the Russian vessel is now 24 nautical miles (44 kilometres) away from shore. Menzies said efforts are under way to get the line re-attached.

The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Spar were also on hand to assist if needed, while an ocean-going tugboat was expected to arrive in the area late Saturday or early Sunday.

The Council of the Haida Nation said the weather forecast has the winds subsiding until early Sunday morning, providing a window to attach another tow line.

“There is no danger of the vessel coming ashore at this time,” a statement released by the council said.

READ MORE: Tow line snaps setting Russian cargo ship adrift again

OLD MASSETT, B.C. – It’s slow going in heavy seas, but a Canadian Coast Guard vessel is continuing to tow a disabled Russian cargo ship away from the rocky shores of British Columbia’s northern coast.

The operation began Friday evening when the crew of the Gordon Reid managed to secure a tether to the Simushir.

The container ship lost power Thursday night in rough water off Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, while sailing from Washington state to Russia.

There were immediate concerns it could drift ashore, break apart and spill hundreds of tonnes of bunker and diesel fuel, creating an environmental disaster.

Sub Lt. Ron MacDougall at the Canadian Forces’ joint rescue co-ordination centre in Victoria, said the Simushir was being towed due West away from shore at about 3.7 kilometres per hour, in three to four metres seas. He said it was about 39 kilometres from the western shore of Haida Gwaii.

MacDougall said the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the American Coast Guard cutter Spar arrived on the scene Saturday, with the ocean going tug Barbara Foss expected later in the day, to provide any additional assistance that might be needed.

WATCH: Disaster was averted Friday night, as a coast guard vessel was able to get a line on a Russian container ship that could have run aground into Haida Gwaii. 

All three vessels have towing capability, but it’s whether they would attempt to secure tethers to the stricken cargo ship.

As well, a Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopter and Buffalo aircraft, along with a U.S. Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter, are on standby in case they are needed.

Reporters were told during a Friday conference call that the ship’s captain had been evacuated to Sandspit, on the eastern side of Haida Gwaii, to receive medical care for an undetermined condition.

Kia said the 10 remaining crew members were working on restarting the ship’s engines, but there was no indication early Saturday morning whether they were making progress.

MacDougall said there was no need to evacuate the crew, at this time.

WATCH: Russian bulk carrier vessel adrift off Haida Gwaii (courtesy: Maritime Forces Pacific)

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.

READ MORE: VIDEO: Russian container ship adrift off coast of Haida Gwaii being towed away from land

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, but later President Pete Lantin told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. their worst fears have subsided.

“Thankfully the weather didn’t come in with the strength of the forecast,” said Lantin. “The conditions out there are still dangerous, but with the vessels onsite we are cautiously optimistic that the ship will be towed safely to port over the next couple of days.”

About 5,000 people live on the island and fish for food nearby, Lantin said.

SHIP ADRIFT OFF BC

Roger Girouard, an assistant commissioner with the Canadian Coast Guard, 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 metres) 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 equipmentin 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 10 crew members need to be pulled off the ship. Officials said the injured captain was evacuated, but they were given no further medical details.

Rough weather was a concern. 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 centre 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.

Marine safety expert Joseph Spears on protecting the BC coast

— With files from Vivian Luk, James Keller, Keven Drews, Dirk Meissner and Global TV

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