Skip to content

Foreign cargo ship stranded without refuelling options due to Northwest B.C. smelter strike

As captain calls for kindness, local fuel suppliers in Kitimat afraid to cross union picket lines
Ships seen here in the Douglas Channel, Kitimat. The captain of a Norwegian cargo ship MV Indiana, trapped at RTA Terminal B dock since July 17, is calling on the the union and Rio Tinto to let it be refuelled. (Binny Paul/Terrace Standard)

As the Kitimat aluminum smelter strike enters its fourth week, the captain of a Norwegian cargo ship trapped at a dock since July is calling on the the union and Rio Tinto to let it be refuelled.

The master of MV Indiana, which dropped anchor in the Kitimat harbour on July 17 in anticipation of loading up with aluminum, says the ship will run out of Emission Control Area (ECA) compliant low sulphur marine fuel if not refuelled by the end of the month. Indiana has been berthed at Rio Tinto’s Terminal B wharf since July 30 after a spot opened up at the terminal.

“We ask for your kindness to allow us to replenish fuel in this berth,” said Capt. Roman Vicente Fudolig in a statement sent to Rio Tinto and Unifor Local 2301 on Aug. 15.

Federal regulations state that any vessel docked in Canadian waters can only be refuelled with low sulphur marine fuel. The vessel does have high sulphur fuel onboard but switching to it would be in violation of other federal and International Maritime Organization mandates. MV Indiana has requested 100- 170 metric tonnes of low sulphur fuel.

Arbutus Point Marine Ltd. – the sole supplier of low sulphur marine gas oil to foreign flag ships on Canada’s Pacific coast – said their subcontractor, Northwest Fuels, is refusing to cross picket lines fearing social media defamation.

“MV Indiana is the unwitting victim of the Rio Tinto strike in Kitimat,” said Marc Gawthrop, managing director of Arbutus Point Marine.

Contractors fear that people on the picket line will take photographs of the fuel trucks and post them on social media, causing local repercussions for Northwest Fuels employees.

In July after the strike commenced, videos of contractors being heckled by union workers outside the smelter surfaced on social media.

Contractors remarked that getting through the picket line without being heckled by the union workers outside of the smelter was difficult, as videos surfaced on Facebook of an integrated fire and security company Tyco being yelled at and called “scabs” by multiple Unifor members as they drove through the picket lines.

READ MORE: BC Labour Relations Board lay down the law during labour dispute

“Compromising the safety and security of the crew members on board MV Indiana is not advancing their cause,” said Gawthrop and added that his calls and emails to both Unifor Local 2301 and Rio Tinto remain unanswered.

The foreign crew can’t disembark because of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions and the ship cannot be taken out of its berth because tug boat operators won’t cross picket lines either.

Northwest Fuels declined to comment on the situation citing confidentiality reasons with regards to information on customer deliveries.

While most vessels that arrive at the docks in Kitimat usually have enough fuel to turn back after collecting cargo, MV Indiana encountered a delay as the cargo delivery from the aluminum smelter was affected by the strike which began on July 25.

The strike between Rio Tinto and its approximately 900 unionized employees represented by Unifor Local 2301 began after negotiations for a collective agreement fell through and the aluminum giant refused to come back to the table.

While top officials from Rio Tinto and Unifor 2301 president met last week (Aug. 12) in Kitimat to determine if negotiations can be renewed, there have been no updates as to whether negotiations will resume again.

According to Gawthrop there are only three truck-accessible places on the north coast of B.C. for foreign flag ships to refuel – Stewart World Port and two Rio Tinto wharves in Kitimat. Heading to Stewart World Port is not a cost efficient option at this point, said Gawthrop estimating anywhere above $30,000 to take that vessel off the berth to Stewart for fuel, and back.

“Denying fuel to the International Transport Federation (ITF) crew members on board a foreign flag ship in Canada does not advance any labour interests for Unifor and posting photographs of contractors on social media to smear them is also a direct threat to the comfort and security of the ITF workers on board the Motor Vessel Indiana,” said Gawthrop.

In an email statement MV Indiana’s owners – shipping company Saga Welco headquartered in Norway – said their vessel Indiana made a scheduled port call for cargo loading operations in Kitimat and is an “innocent party” to the negotiations.

“We look forward to a quick and amicable resolution so the vessel can complete cargo loading,” said a Saga Welco spokesperson.

Editor’s note: MV Indiana berthed at RTA Terminal B on July 30 after arriving at Kitimat achorage on July 17. Previously the article said Indiana was berthed at RTA Terminal B since July 17

About the Author: Binny Paul

Read more