The MV Zim Kingston, bound for the Port of Vancouver, arrived just outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca last Thursday after crossing the Pacific laden with cargo picked up in China and South Korea. It was carrying 2,000 containers – a few containing dangerous chemicals – when it slowed down, tracing the pattern of number four during an increasing storm in October in the open waters of the Strait.
Maritime tracking data shows that the 260-meter-long freighter continued this pattern for the next 22 hours. At one point, a wave probably took the ship aside. It was showing strong pressure – 35 degrees to one side – and at least 109 containers came loose and crashed overboard. At least two of them were carrying chemicals used in mining.
Why the Zim Kingston crew chose to weather the storm for so long remains an open question. But the consequences for the coast are now being felt as these containers and their dumped contents wash up along the shores of Vancouver Island, including the pristine white sand beaches of Cape Scott Provincial Park on the northern tip of the island this week.
The containers were filled with consumer goods, such as refrigerators, engine parts, yoga mats and toys, but also very hazardous materials that could still ride the waves further north. But that was only the beginning: the ship then headed for an emergency anchorage just outside the town of Victoria. It was then that a fire was detected on board among the damaged containers.
Concerns about maritime safety amid growing commercial marine traffic have been the subject of debate for years in British Columbia due to the increased number of tankers that will result from the completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. Ottawa has pledged to increase resources to protect the oceans in response to criticism of the project.
The misadventures of Zim Kingston, however, highlight the risks present in the daily transport of goods along the coast.
The 13-year-old Maltese-flagged vessel was en route to the Port of Vancouver, but the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority cannot explain why the vessel did not request a place to anchor earlier. There were 10 anchorages in Vancouver Harbor and 24 more in the southern Gulf Islands available at the time. The owners of the vessel declined to be interviewed.
But as the ship idled in the open Pacific, just hours from a safe harbor, meteorologists warned that a major storm was brewing offshore – a rare “cyclone bomb”.
Danaos Shipping Co., the ship’s owner, said in a statement that he immediately informed local port authorities to notify other vessels in the area once his cargo was lost. But the investigation of the incident was postponed until the day the crew was able to assess their losses. They would learn that at least two of the missing containers contained hazardous materials – potassium amyl xanthate and thiourea dioxide.
Just before midnight on October 21, the storm-damaged vessel broke its holding pattern, heading for an emergency anchorage at Constance Bank, about five miles off Victoria. While the waters of the strait are calmer, the remaining stacks of containers have suffered damage.
On Saturday the 23rd, the ship’s officers radioed the Canadian Coast Guard in Victoria for assistance in extinguishing a fire that had started in two containers aboard the ship.
At 11 a.m., when the Canadian Coast Guard responded, at least 10 containers were on fire, including those containing amyl potassium xanthate, a hazardous material widely used in mineral processing. The hazardous material required caution and first responders could not extinguish the flames directly with water. The first ship to arrive with a fire fighting capability was the Firebrand, from Naval Base Esquimalt. The Coast Guard Atlantic tug arrived at 7 a.m. Sunday morning.
Emergency responders – including officers who refused a Coast Guard order to abandon ship – are credited with preventing a large-scale environmental disaster. But that was mitigated in part by the luck that two private tugs with firefighting capability were nearby.
Some of the new resources promised by the federal government include a Offshore supply vessel expected to be in service in 2022, which will have firefighting capability and could be used in response to similar incidents in the future. But on Saturday, the key firefighting response came from the Maersk Tender and the Maersk Trader, who were docked at Victoria’s Ogden Point, just returning from a non-profit expedition to test a new system for collecting the fires. garbage in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
“It was very lucky that they were in the harbor, I don’t know where the next big firefighting vessel is,” said Ian Robertson, CEO of the Greater Victoria Port Authority.
The two tugs were dispatched to help manage the blaze which sent huge plumes of smoke in plain sight of the city. It’s a reminder, said Robertson, that the coast needs more resources to protect the marine environment. “We need a significant firefighting capability here on the west coast.”
Peter Lahay, Canadian coordinator of the maritime branch of the International Federation of Transport Workers, agrees it could have been worse. Mr. Lahay followed the ship’s strange pattern of waiting in the storm, wondering why the ship had not been offered a safe harbor.
Sri Lanka is still grappling with an environmental disaster after a chemical cargo ship caught fire off its coast in May, he noted.
“We were so lucky,” said Lahay, adding that the incident is a disturbing example of poor regulatory oversight of the country’s maritime trade. He asks the Federal Bureau of Transportation Safety to investigate.
“This ship was left idling – between 2.4 and five knots – in this swell the weather bomb was coming in and it was difficult,” he said. “We’re looking for trouble here if we think we can leave ships there, especially in the winter.”
He said Canada has an obligation to provide a safe port for ships entering the port. “All the prosperity of this country depends on shipping and in return for that we should invest to make sure we regulate the industry safely. “
Robert Lewis-Manning, president of the Chamber of Shipping, a Canadian shipping industry association, said this is a growing challenge that Canada needs to better manage. “It wasn’t the only ship lying around, waiting for somewhere to go. But the US Coast Guard reached out, they invited ships into the Strait of Juan de Fuca as this storm developed. “
Mr Lewis-Manning said it was not clear why the Zim Kingston chose to wait, but over the past three years the busy ports of Seattle and Vancouver have had more and more problems programming. “At the heart of the matter, we need to determine whether Canada has an obligation to help mitigate risk when that risk is unusual.”
Canadian and US Coast Guard officials are still tracking the movement of containers that have become vacant and using information from helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft flights, as well as reports from commercial vessels.
The ship’s fire burned for a week before being declared extinguished on Friday. Mariah McCooey, Federal Deputy Incident Commander for the Canadian Coast Guard, said earlier this week that the situation on board was “very dangerous and difficult” partly because of the bad weather, but also because of the presence of hazardous materials. .
She said the root cause of the fire remains unknown and will be determined in the coming days.
Maritime experts remain concerned about the impact of this incident. Juan Jose Alava, marine ecotoxicologist and conservation biologist at the University of British Columbia, said the impact of 52 tonnes of amyl potassium xanthate on board the ship and the containers lost overboard can be catastrophic.
“We should not assume that diluting this chemical in salt water will reduce potential short-term health effects; however, questions persist about the long-term effects or impacts on marine life and coastal First Nations communities heavily dependent on seafood, ”Dr. Alava wrote in an email.
Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, a British Columbia-based marine conservation organization, said on Wednesday that the ship’s debris could run aground in the Scott Islands, a national marine wildlife area north of the Vancouver Island, home to the highest concentration of breeding seabirds on Canada’s Pacific coast.
“Seabirds tend to pick up brightly colored plastics, mistaking them for high-value protein, and feed them in preference to their chicks. Bottle caps and other small pieces of plastic such as those that may be among the toys in the cargo are frequently found in the carcass of dead chicks, ”she wrote in an email.
The cleaning continues.
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