HARTLEY BAY, BC—The two ex-lovers who were at the helm of the BC Ferries ship Queen of the North during a routine overnight sailing from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy six years ago probably didn't expect their first reunion after a two-week separation to end the way it did. Years later, despite a lengthy investigation into what happened that night (with which the ex-lovers refused to co-operate), only the bridge crew on staff know the specific details of the human error that caused a 700-passenger ferry to collide with Gil Island and sink in the early hours of March 22, 2006.
Soon the jagged rocks and narrow channels that consumed the ferry may be an obstacle course for much larger ships, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
If the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal is accepted, tankers will cross the ferry route at Wright Sound, passing the sunken ship as they start up Douglas Channel.
The tankers would carry hundreds of millions of litres of bitumen from Kitimat to China, making the 250,000 litres of diesel on the Queen of the North seem paltry by comparison.
Each tanker is three times the length of the ferry, requiring two kilometres to stop completely. There is far less room for human or technical error. With growing opposition to the gas and oil pipelines proposed to cross BC, a closer look at the Queen of the North incident sheds new light on the dangers of tanker traffic on the wild, rocky coast.
The passengers and crew stranded in the dark, isolated sound on that fateful March night in 2006 were fortunate to be in Gitga’at Nation Territory.
Upon hearing the radioed distress signals, nearly all of the 200 Gitga’at residents of the nearby Hartley Bay leapt out of bed, mobilized every boat in the village and prepared the community centre to accommodate 99 exhausted and traumatized survivors. Their life-saving efforts came well in advance of the arrival of the Coast Guard. Even with this effort, two of the passengers aboard the Queen of the North, Shirley Rosette and Gerald Foisy, were never found and are presumed dead.
When it sank, the Queen of the North brought hundreds of thousands of litres of diesel, oil and hydraulic fluid down with it. First responders on the scene that night reported that the entire surface of Wright Sound was covered in a film of diesel.
Hartley Bay residents as far as 11 kilometres away reported that they could smell the accident from their homes. The 2007 Queen of the North Monitoring Summary Review, an environmental report commissioned by BC Ferries, found that following the sinking, patches of diesel dotted several hundred square kilometres of ocean surface and may have contacted 100 kilometres of shoreline.
Six years later, community members from Hartley Bay are still dealing with the impacts of the sinking. The ship remains on the ocean floor. Even today, they say, diesel patches are visible when the weather is calm.
“If the Queen of the North had sunk anywhere near Vancouver or Victoria, it would still not be sitting at the bottom of the ocean, leaking contaminants,” said Cameron Hill, a Hartley Bay Band Council member. “There’s no way that would have happened anywhere else. But it’s happening right outside Hartley Bay.”
Hill claims that two days after the sinking, former BC Premier Gordon Campbell and former BC Ferries CEO David Hahn promised the ship would be raised. “At the very least, [they said] they will take out all of the contaminants,” said Hill. “The technology is there to do that. That never happened either. And still to this day it leaks.”
Following analysis from the Canadian Coast Guard and London Offshore Consultants, BC Ferries determined that it was not worth raising the wreck or attempting to remove the diesel. Nobody knows for certain whether all of the diesel was dispersed in the incident, or if some is still trapped in the hull. The Queen of the North remains 430 metres under the ocean.
Removing the diesel floating on the ocean surface also proved to be an insurmountable task.
Diesel is a very light fuel that spreads to less than one millimetre of depth. Without a very calm surface it is difficult to extract. “There was not a heck of a lot that you could do,” said Ernie Hill, one of three Hereditary Chiefs of the Gitga’at. “They had booms out there, but all they could do was redirect it. I think somebody said they collected, maybe ten gallons or something, of actual diesel fuel. But the rest went to the beaches.”
Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, the company contracted by BC Ferries for the cleanup, did not respond to interview requests before this article went to press.
Ernie Hill and others think the diesel is already taking a toll on marine life.
“Unfortunately there were really big tides,” said Hill. “Our major clam beds were just totally below it. We looked at the clams the following year and they were just not good. You know, dark inside and not very much of it. And it drifts up to the high water mark and it affected a lot of our plants there too.”
BC Ferries, a private corporation contracted and legislated by the BC government, promised the region would be restored to a pristine condition and that it would fund a yearly contribution to the Hartley Bay Band to pay for monitoring and testing of marine life in the area. The monitoring included visually inspecting the wreck area to check for leaking fuel as well as sending shellfish to a lab to check for contamination.
BC Ferries paid for monitoring until March 2011, when the company decided it was no longer effective at detecting pollution. The decision to axe the monitoring program occurred the same year that BC Ferries was facing a $20 million budget shortfall, following years of controversy surrounding high executive compensation. The company considers the monitoring unreliable at detecting spills because of factors such as weather conditions, timing of the upwelling, underwater currents and limited time spent on the water.
“The result of this monitoring disclosed extremely minor leakage from the wreck of approximately half a litre of fuel per day or less, which spread and dissipated quickly on the surface without any identified environmental impact,” wrote Deborah Marshall, Executive Director of Public Affairs for BC Ferries, in an email to The Dominion. “Upwelling monitoring did not provide any useful data other than to establish that, over the five-year period, the wreck appeared to be very stable with decreased residual leakage,” she wrote.
The Queen of the North Monitoring Summary Review suggests that the effects of the Queen of the North were short lived. “Local residents have indicated that their food resources are still contaminated, but the science indicates that resources closest to the wreck site were ‘recovered’ by June of 2006 and contaminant levels reached the same level as sites that had not been affected by the spill,” wrote John Harper, who coordinated the monitoring program for BC Ferries, in an email to The Dominion.
Hartley Bay residents, believing there are lingering impacts from the vessel, are now paying for their own visual monitoring. Many residents still won’t eat from certain shellfish beds.
Health Canada has done shellfish testing since BC Ferries ceased doing it, although residents are uncertain how long that will continue. Even if the toxins are at low levels now, without daily monitoring, residents have no way of knowing if an underwater "burp" has unleashed a fresh batch of diesel onto the clam beds.
Ernie Hill takes this contamination very seriously. His peoples’ traditional harvesting grounds hold centuries of cultural significance, and are also a major food source. Their territory is remote; the nearest grocery store is in Prince Rupert, a four-hour ferry ride away. Since goods shipped to the region are expensive, access to local seafood is a matter of survival.
“Any oil spill, anywhere in our territory, that’s the end for us,” said Hill. “Our people would cease to exist, really. We’ll have to move out.”
The Queen of the North isn’t the only abandoned shipwreck in Gitga’at Territory. In 2003, the Coast Guard noticed a mysterious crude oil slick in Grenville Channel that polluted five kilometres of shoreline.
Shortly after the discovery, an underwater robot determined it was the Brigadier General MG Zalinksi, a long-forgotten US armament ship that sank in 1946, approximately 30 kilometres northwest of the ferry’s shipwreck. The Canadian government sent divers down to plug the corroded rivet holes. The quick fix was repeated this spring when more bunker oil was discovered to be leaking.
Although the Zalinski sits under only 27 metres of water, a long-term solution is complicated by the fact that the ship contains at least a dozen 500-pound aerial bombs. The United States government has absolved itself of any responsibility, and the Canadian government has been deliberating on a solution for years.
For now, other ships have simply been warned not to anchor near the site.
The Gitga’at are left hoping for a solution before the 93-year-old ship rusts away, releasing whatever remains of the 700 tonnes of bunker C fuel the ship was carrying. Bunker C is a much denser and more persistent toxin than the diesel released by the ferry. Its consistency and effects are more like the crude that was carried by the Exxon Valdez tanker that crashed in Alaska in 1989.
As unhappy as the Gitga’at are about the abandonment of either shipwreck in their territory, they know they still aren’t dealing with the worst-case scenario.
“The Queen of the North spilled thousands of litres of diesel that impacted our territory,” said Cameron Hill. “In the overall scheme of oil spills, diesel is a pretty light material compared to the crude that’s going to be in these tankers.”
Members of Indigenous communities from Alaska have visited Hartley Bay to share their experiences of the Exxon Valdez. One such community was so badly hit that the people had to be permanently relocated. “Everybody involved knew that there was no way that their territory was ever going to rebound for these people,” said Hill. “They moved them off of every bit of passed-down knowledge that they had ever known about the territory that they were in.”
If industry gets its way, Northern Gateway tankers will carry diluted bitumen, which is much more expensive and difficult to clean up than crude oil. Unlike diesel, bitumen does not evaporate, and unlike diesel or crude, it doesn’t really float. Once it is spilled in water, it separates into a poisonous gas condensate and a dense sticky resin that is too heavy to be caught by surface skimmers. It coats the surrounding wilderness with a persistent toxic sludge.
According to a Canadian Press report, the head of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research, Dr. Kenneth Lee, believes that Enbridge has done insufficient research on the differences between crude oil and bitumen spills.
While the Enbridge bitumen pipeline is heavily contested, construction has already begun to accommodate tankers carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG). Hartley Bay residents are more or less resigned to the LNG tankers, which are slightly smaller than the bitumen tankers and carry different risks. An LNG spill would not coat sea life in a heavy toxic slick, but it can become flammable as it evaporates.
“We’ve been trained by Burrard Clean, that’s an oil cleanup company,” said Marven Robinson, a Hartley Bay Band Council member and part of the marine guardianship program. “They told us, ‘See what you guys did the night the ferries sank? Don’t do it with any of those ships going up to Kitimat.‘ The guy said they’re being paid, for dangerous pay. They said ‘Don’t you guys ever go out to one of these boats. If it’s condensate, don’t go out at all. If anything you might have to move all of the people in the community.’ We said ‘Why?’ and he said ‘Well the condensate is under pressure. And it’s safe while it’s under pressure. But as soon as you take that pressure away it starts to evaporate.’ They said ‘If you guys go to one of these accidents your outboard motors will ignite the condensate.‘”
Unlike BC Ferries, which is controlled by the province, Northern Gateway tankers will be owned by a variety of foreign entities who would be liable for costs of cleanup in the eventuality of an ocean spill. Enbridge is promising to extend its spill response plan to the ocean, though it isn't legally responsible for the oil once it has left the pipeline. Spill costs that exceed $1.3 billion will be on Canadian taxpayers. The 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker accident resulted in $3.5 billion in cleanup costs and $5 billion in legal and financial settlements.
The historical precedents set by past wrecks have the Gitga’at apprehensive about the future of their territory. Once a ship goes down, it appears it does not come back up. Once a contaminant is in the water, it can’t easily be removed. Long-forgotten wrecks can come back to haunt the living. Parties liable for cleanup, if they accept accountability at all, can unilaterally decide when the work is done. Experienced crews on established routes with sophisticated technology remain vulnerable to human error.
Erin Empey is a Vancouver based writer.