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Oil spill ‘not matter of if, but when’: Gulf Islands renew call for rescue tug

American and Canadian officials join forces to make plea for Sidney-based ship

Officials from the American and Canadian Gulf Islands have joined forces to make a plea for more oil tanker protection.

Island Trust and San Juan County councils have renewed their request for a rescue tug to be positioned on Vancouver Island in Sidney, following concerns of oil spills potentially devastating island communities late last year.

A letter from the Gulf and San Juan Island councils was sent to the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada in late January. The Canadian and U.S. island assemblies said that two emergency towing vessels aren’t enough to provide the towns of both archipelagos with adequate protection from shipping oil spills or incidents like the M/V Zim Kingston last fall. (Late last October, the Zim Kingston, a South Korean cargo ship, was rendered almost completely inoperable after catching fire, and sending over 100 cargo containers adrift off the coast of Vancouver Island). The solution, they said, is a permanent rescue tug in Sidney.

Turn Point on Stuart Island is “probably one of the most significant pinch points for freighter, oil tanker and large vessel traffic on (Canada’s) west coast,” said Peter Luckman, chair of the Island Trust Council.

San Juan County councillor Jamie Stephens described the link between the Georgia and Juan de Fuca Straits as a “roundabout” for shipping vessels to Vancouver or Bellingham, Wash., with 70 per cent of vessel traffic departing from Canada. The Port of Vancouver anticipates a rise to 12 ships a day by 2026, over the nine daily arrivals seen presently.

Turn Point on Stuart Island is, according to the Island Trust council, one of the most significant thoroughfares of shipping vessel traffic on the west coast. Its vessels pass several island municipalities on the Canadian and U.S. sides. (Google Maps)

READ ALSO: 2018: $67M for two emergency towing vessels for B.C. coast

The Atlantic Eagle and Atlantic Raven Canadian rescue tugs spend 60 per cent of their combined time in Sidney or Victoria but rotate along British Columbia’s coast. U.S. or Canadian tugs were only present in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Haro Strait and Boundary Pass 30 per cent of the time in 2019, according to a study from the Clear Seas Centre for marine shipping research.

“If those vessels are more than six hours away in the event of a (shipping) crisis, we may as well not have them,” Luckman said. Tidal shifts could cause a distressed vessel and its contents to become grounded, he said.

The Atlantic Raven rescue tug arrived to the M/V Zim Kingston 18 hours following the fire in the Strait of Juan de Fuca last fall. Over the last year and a half, Luckman said several vessels have dragged anchor or had tangled them navigating the Plumper Sound inlet or Turn Point’s 70 degree turn.

A spill of an oil shipping vessel “isn’t a matter of if, but when,” Stephens said.

READ ALSO: MV Zim Kingston’s lost cargo containers still a deep concern for Vancouver Island

Of six ports considered by Clear Seas and Island Trust, Sidney and Roche Harbor, Wash., offered the best response time for responding to inland incidents. Consider that Roche Harbour’s population is 11,000 less than Sidney’s, and Washington’s commitment of a rescue tug in Neah Bay (adjacent Port Renfrew), and Sidney is preferred for an additional Canadian tug, Luckman said.

Sidney B.C.'s harbour on the chilly morning of Feb. 23, 2022. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

Both councils have yet to hear back from either Canadian ministry to their January letter. Over a decade of changing municipal leadership, “we all know that this is what is necessary,” Luckman said.

“We’re not getting the movement that we would like to see.”

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Atlantic Eagle, one of two Canadian Coast Guard emergency towing vessels rotated across B.C. (Canadian Coast Guard/Contributed photo)

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