‘Slow-moving disaster’: Group wants urgent action on cargo spills in B.C.

A wrecked cargo container is seen surrounded by debris on northwestern Vancouver Island on Friday. Global News

A volunteer organization that has been cleaning up debris from a cargo ship that lost 109 containers off the B.C. coast last fall says the incident should be a wake-up call to the need for more urgent action.

Alys Hoyland of the Surfrider Foundation’s Pacific Rim chapter in Tofino said urinal mats, coolers and other cargo that was swept off the MV Zim Kingston in October continue to wash up on the western shore of Vancouver Island.

Debris has been found as far away as northeastern Haida Gwaii, hundreds of kilometres from the spill site, and Hoyland said she is concerned that the longer it takes to clean up, the more material will degrade and spread along the coast.

Beach cleaners still find hockey equipment from a container that went overboard in the 1990s, she said, and the organization expects similar long-lasting consequences from this incident.

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“This is going to be a slow-moving disaster for the coastline for many years to come,” Hoyland said.

Click to play video: 'Clean-up of debris from container ship Zim Kingston continues on Vancouver Island'
Clean-up of debris from container ship Zim Kingston continues on Vancouver Island

The containers were lost from the Zim Kingston during a storm near the entrance to the Juan de Fuca Strait around the same time a fire broke out on the vessel on Oct. 22.

Four containers carrying fridges and running shoes washed ashore on northern Vancouver Island in November but 105 containers have still not been recovered, the Canadian Coast Guard said in a statement. It confirmed reports of debris on Haida Gwaii and said the vessel owner is doing beach surveys.

A sonar scan of the area where the containers went overboard and environmental risk assessment have not been done, but planning is underway, the coast guard said.

“The vessel owner has hired a contractor to do the scan but they need to wait for an appropriate weather window to complete the work,” it said.

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In Canada, polluters are required by law to pay for cleanup and the coast guard said the owner of the vessel was part of a team leading the response. The coast guard forwards any public reports of debris to the vessel owner and ensures appropriate cleanup occurs.

The owner has hired a salvage contractor to retrieve containers and debris that washes ashore, and will check areas where debris has accumulated every few months, the coast guard said.

The ship’s manager, Danaos Shipping, said in an email that cleanup work by a contracted specialist is ongoing.

“The owner of the Zim Kingston continues to work with the Canadian authorities to survey beaches where debris came ashore after the incident, respond to reports of new debris from the incident, scan the area where the containers went overboard and assess environmental issues,” the statement said.

Click to play video: 'Container ship clean up underway on Vancouver Island'
Container ship clean up underway on Vancouver Island

The ship has returned to normal operations, it added.

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The coast guard said debris of the same type is likely to pile up in specific areas and items that are found should be reported to its pollution reporting line.

The coast guard says the debris is similar to what was found in November and December, which includes Christmas decorations, clothing, toys, gym mats, boots and shoes and refrigerator parts.

Hoyland said she would like to see the spill of cargo, which includes plastics and other materials that can be harmful to marine life, approached with similar urgency to fuel spills.

The longer it takes to retrieve the containers and their contents, the more difficult it will be to link them to this particular ship, she said.

As an example, she said she expects boxes containing Christmas decorations to degrade, setting loose large pieces of Styrofoam that she worries no one will be responsible for cleaning up.

“The longer this stuff stays in the ocean, the harder it is to identify as container debris,” she said.

Groups like Surfrider are considering long-term monitoring strategies and incorporating what’s being found into their annual cleanup plans, she said.


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