What did we learn from the Simushir?

A disabled Russian cargo ship was en route to port in British Columbia for repairs and the rescue operation was declared officially over Sunday. Now the debate begins.

In the end, the Simushir was secured but with a battle already brewing over oil tanker safety off the West Coast, the incident raised questions about the response to the vessel drifting since Thursday near the coast of the Haida Gwaii archipelago, a marine sanctuary off the North Coast.

“It was luck,” Peter Lantin, president of the Haida Nation, said Sunday of the crisis averted.

He commended the Canadian Coast Guard for its response but he said it was pure chance that the coast guard, with all the cuts it has faced, was available. Even then, it took 20 hours to reach the remote vessel.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea issued a statement thanking rescuers for their quick response.

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“Through close co-ordination between the Canadian Coast Guard and the Department of National Defence, the Government of Canada was able to take immediate action to halt the Russian-flagged ship Simushir from drifting into shore,” she said.

Not everyone agrees.

The Haida quickly realized there was little they could do.

“The news coming in was it’s going to hit shore and we have to get ready for that,” he said. But “we were helpless. We were sitting, watching a disaster happen in our back yard.”

B.C. is engaged in a divisive debate over two proposed oil pipelines connecting the Alberta oilsands to West Coast ports.

The federal government has approved Enbridge’s (TSX:ENB) $7.9-billion Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, B.C., while Kinder Morgan’s $5.4-billion expansion of its existing Trans Mountain line to Metro Vancouver is now before the National Energy Board. Combined, they would result in more than 600 additional oil tankers a year plying West Coast waters.

The B.C. government also has designs for a trillion-dollar liquefied natural gas industry that would add hundreds more tankers to that tally.

Ottawa has made a flurry of announcements about marine safety since Northern Gateway ran into trouble, including improved liability coverage and increased tanker inspections.

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The Simushir was seen as a test of whether sufficient safety measures are in place.

The results were “discouraging,” said Darryl Anderson, a marine transport analyst at Wave Point Consulting in Victoria.

“It was encouraging that the coast guard, with the limited resources they have, did take charge,” he said. But “they don’t have the capacity. We haven’t funded the coast guard properly for a number of years — and not just this federal government.”

B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak thanked responders Sunday for managing the situation.

“As fortunate as we were on this occasion, this event underlines the need to develop a world-leading marine response system,” Polak said. “The federal government has taken steps towards developing a world-class marine response system but more work is required.”

It took almost two days for an ocean-going tugboat to reach the Simushir. The Barbara Foss was sent from Washington state, and Anderson wondered why B.C. doesn’t have a dedicated tug stationed along the coast, which has been recommended repeatedly since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Gordon Reid arrived more than 20 hours after the Simushir lost power. The coast guard vessel’s tow line broke three times, though the Reid did successfully tow the cargo ship away from Haida Gwaii.

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Others agree with the federal fisheries minister that the incident showed the strength of emergency response on the West Coast.

“#Ecofearmongers can stand down,” Richmond-Steveston MLA John Yap said on Twitter after the tug arrived.

Lt. Greg Menzies of the Canadian Forces’ Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria said Sunday that the centre would monitor progress but it was no longer a search and rescue operation but a commercial salvage operation.

The two Canadian and one American coast guard vessels left the scene to return to their regular duties and three Canadian and American aircraft on standby on Haida Gwaii also departed.