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Labour + Industry

BC Ferries Rushed Ship into Service Despite Safety Worries

Records acquired by Tyee reveal Transport Canada let Northern Adventure sail with 17 identified safety deficiencies and no evacuation plan.

Andrew MacLeod 19 Sep

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

In 2007, after British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. bought the Northern Adventure to replace the sunken Queen of the North, a senior union official slammed "incompetent" Transport Canada inspectors for allowing the vessel to sail.

Through an access to information request, The Tyee has now obtained 1,500 pages of records from Transport Canada documenting the federal agency's involvement.

The partially censored records, another 500 pages of which were withheld, took the federal government two years and two months to release.

They show inspectors worked with BC Ferries on a wide variety of issues and visited the vessel in Spain to provide advice even before the publicly-owned company bought the vessel.

They also tell a story of "media interest" and pressure to approve the vessel in a hurry to meet BC Ferries' timeline. And they make clear that Transport Canada certified the ship despite a long list of deficiencies and concern among inspectors that some requirements, including the provision of an evacuation plan, were not met.

And a year after inspectors certified the vessel, a colleague conducting a routine inspection found a "serious safety deficiency" they'd missed.

Inspectors went to Spain

BC Ferries bought the Greek-built Sonia for $50.6 million and renamed it the Northern Adventure. The company needed it to replace the Queen of the North, which had struck an island and sunk. Two people, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, were missing after the March 22, 2006 sinking and are presumed drowned.

In May, 2006, at BC Ferries' request, Vancouver-based Transport Canada senior marine inspectors Jerzy Trzesicki and Peter Estabrooks travelled to Barcelona to inspect the Sonia on a run to the Mediterranean island Ibiza.

"The general condition of the electrical system, based on meter readings and observations, was considered unsatisfactory," wrote Estabrooks in a May 9, 2006 letter to Trafford Taylor, then a BC Ferries vice president.

The poor condition was despite the fact the vessel had valid certificates and was only two years old, he wrote in a three-page letter that detailed his concerns. There were signs of poor electrical maintenance, fire hazards, and no supplementary emergency lighting system to be found.

In a separate three-page letter, Trzesicki said the ship was in decent condition, but outlined 11 areas of concern including what might happen in an emergency situation. "Evacuation needs to be analyzed, preferably for compliance with SOLAS regulations on the minimum stairways width," he wrote. "It is believed that for a decreased number of passengers (e.g. 600) the evacuation requirements could be met. However, the forward escape tower may not be able to accommodate the number of people forced to use it in an emergency, when the aft fire zone becomes unavailable."

Trzesicki, who would be the lead inspector throughout bringing the Northern Adventure into service in B.C., thanked Taylor and the other BCFS team members "for your support, professionalism, and for your hospitality."

Short timeline

BC Ferries reportedly spent $9 million on refits in Greece to get the ship ready for the trip to Canada, then a further $9 million at the Victoria Shipyards. Including taxes and the cost of getting the vessel to B.C., the company spent some $100 million.

After the ship came to Canada, Transport Canada consulted extensively with BCFS on it in the early months of 2007. Topics included crewing levels, training, fire control plans, and evacuation plans. Fire extinguishers had to be replaced.

There were concerns about worn valves and pumps, lifeboats, the suitability of carpets, watertight doors, emergency lighting, exit signs and a damaged davit that was needed for raising and lowering a lifeboat.

The company planned to get the vessel into service by March 31, though officials doubted it would be possible.

"I can see that your date for completion and operation is fast approaching and we have considerable number of items still outstanding," Transport Canada's manager of technical services Makhan Chowdrey wrote in a March 8 email to Keok Ng, special projects manager in BC Ferries' new vessel construction and industry affairs division. "We are working with your team to facilitate the completion of first inspection, but time is a big factor in your commitment."

Ng responded that getting the ship approved would likely require Transport Canada officials to work overtime. "You are correct there are many systems to be witnessed, so weekend work is probably needed for your inspectors to attend to vessel."

Inspectors would need to sign off on the public address system, fire alarms, general alarms, watertight doors, transitional power, a deluge test, fire doors, inclining results, the ship's stability booklet, fire control, lifesaving plans and crew competency, he noted.

Unlikely to be ready, says TC official

Trzesicki wrote to Ng a few days later saying BCFS staff would have to be well organized to get the ship approved. "I am very concerned with such a tight schedule," he wrote.

A Lloyds Registry audit, planned to be done while the vessel moved from the Lower Mainland to Port Hardy in early March didn't happen because BCFS wasn't ready, an email from a Lloyds official says.

Meanwhile, inside Transport Canada there were doubts BCFS could make its goal. Russ Dillon, Transport Canada Marine's manager in Prince Rupert, wrote to Chowdrey on March 23, "I'm hearing local rumbles that BCF intend on taking passengers from Hardy to Rupert next week on said vessel on its maiden voyage here & local papers are showing an open house next Wed. . . . and starting service on April 1st . . . Does this appear close to reality?"

Chowdrey responded, "There are many things to do yet, therefore it's very unlikely."

One of the main sticking points was the evacuation plan, which inspector Al Rushwan had been trying to get. In a March 26 email he said he had made six requests for the plan over 19 days, but still had not received it. "The delay is from BCFS," he said.

At least once he warned BC Ferries officials that as far as he was concerned the vessel could not be certified until the plan, which would cover what to do in the case of an emergency where passengers and crew would have to leave the ship, had been submitted and approved.

BC Ferries was aware it was a problem. "His position has been that he needs to see the evac plan, see the evac analysis and see the drills before Jerzy will issue SIC-01," BC Ferries' Paul Madsen wrote in an email to Taylor and others on March 26. "We know now that BMT will not have the analysis ready until around the 5th of April so Al's order of things will not work for March 31st."

Excused from evacuation plan requirement

BC Ferries' Taylor appealed to Jim Lawson, Transport Canada's Regional Director Marine for the Pacific Region, who described it as an "11th hour situation" of the sort they were trying avoid. Taylor, whose email opened "Help!!!!!!", argued the company had provided various proposals and didn't really understand what the inspector wanted.

There were two main scenarios outlined, a choice between increasing the number of crew or decreasing the number of passengers. Neither option was acceptable to BC Ferries.

Lawson cited "much internal discussion" at Transport Canada, but approval was given for the vessel to sail with the 40-person crew BC Ferries wished to assign until the missing plans were provided. Emails about the decision were heavily censored before their release.

Transport Canada and Rushwan wouldn't get the evacuation analysis until April 26, nearly four weeks after Northern Adventure began carrying passengers.

It appears from the documents that Transport Canada made an exception for the Northern Adventure by allowing it to carry passengers without submitting, let alone having approved, an evacuation analysis. While Rushwan had told BC Ferries it could not be certified without one, Transport Canada ultimately excused the requirement -- one that would seem particularly significant given that the company was replacing a vessel that had sunk on the same route the Northern Adventure would be serving.

A spokesperson for Transport Canada failed to respond by deadline to The Tyee's questions this week about why the requirement was excused and whether such exceptions are common.

Further insight into Lawson's role can be seen in an email to Richard Day, a Transport Canada director in Ottawa whose signature was needed on the certification. On March 28, as five inspectors prepared to visit the ship, he wanted to have the certificate ready to deliver, assuming all went well with the inspection.

"Lots of media coverage here," he wrote. "Inspectors are completing the inspection in Port Hardy flying there tonight/tomorrow early. Hence we need to have the SIC 01 (for a passenger ship on short International Voyages) signed by the Chair of the Board . . . In order not to delay the vessel would you please arrange."

That same day Trzesicki wrote a note to Day's executive assistant that made it clear he'd been pressing to get the certificate as well. "Sorry (pls. pass my apologies to Richard [Day] as well) for the last minute submission and all that pressure from my side, but I needed that certification that badly . . . A lot of last-minute pressure here, too."

The Northern Adventure sailed as planned on March 31, taking passengers from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert. It had a three-month temporary certification from Transport Canada, with much more work required.

Approved, with deficiencies

On April 5, days after certifying the Northern Adventure, Trzesicki sent BC Ferries a list of 17 deficiencies that would have to be fixed by June 30.

They included providing 640 lifejackets, enough for every passenger and crew member. Other emails suggest some had gone "missing" and it would be possible to temporarily use lifejackets from another vessel.

There was a lifeboat lowering device that still needed to be fixed, and the company still needed to replace carpet and fire extinguishers. The elevator and escalator were to remain locked until provincial authorities inspected them and issued proper certificates.

(The escalator in particular was contentious, with BC Ferries president and CEO David Hahn writing letters to the BC Safety Authority. The escalator was at 35 degrees, which while okay in Europe is five degrees steeper than B.C. regulations allow. Hahn argued that while safety was a BC Ferries priority, there was no evidence the extra five degrees would lead to "incremental" injuries.)

Trzesicki also raised a problem that could be serious if people needed to leave the vessel in a hurry: "doors in cabins . . . to be protected against being jammed by the bathroom doors inside when the latter are swing-open." Making the doors safe would require the "installation of suitable stoppers," he wrote.

Finally, he noted that the list was not necessarily exhaustive, and other issues might yet arise. In a separate email, it was clear that the certification had come with assurances from BC Ferries staff that problems would be fixed. He wrote: "What was promised . . . must be done."

It is unclear from the records when all the required work may have been completed, though there are clear indications it wasn't until at least well after the summer tourist season (see below).

Loose fire extinguisher disabled alarm system

On April 6 there was an unusual accident on the Northern Adventure. While the vessel was underway, according to a Marine Safety Notice filed with Transport Canada, the pin came out of a fire extinguisher that had been lying down on deck four. The extinguisher "released into smoke detector which set off fire alarm panel, which set off P.A. system / emergency signal unit."

It was impossible to make announcements while the signals were sounding and the crew couldn't get the signals to stop, so they unplugged the system control unit. Until it could be fixed four crew members were assigned to be a "human alarm".

Heather Ramsay wrote an account of that night for The Tyee in 2007. Transport Canada documents say a reporter who asked about problems with the public address system was assured that it had worked at the time of inspection and that vessels are not allowed to sail unless the agency is satisfied they are safe.

Trzesicki was more candid in an April 23 email to Dillon in the Prince Rupert office: "Public address system was not perfect, but was found acceptable of not stopping the vessel from operating (crew cabins only had problems, and the Master would deal with crew in alternative ways till the issue is completely solved)."

As days went by, BC Ferries publicly acknowledged there were problems "cropping up" with the Northern Adventure, though no details were provided. A week after the vessel went into service a sailing was delayed for 30 hours and after using it for a month sent it for a 10-day refit at Deas Pacific Marine in Richmond.

"Once again [Transport Canada] did a substandard inspection and issued a certificate allowing this to happen," Captain David Badior, then president of the ships' officers component of the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union, wrote at the time, citing his own list of safety concerns, The Tyee reported in 2009.

"In my opinion there are people at Transport Canada who are negligent in the performance of their duties and should be sacked . . . Transport Canada is a joke, actually it isn't because people have died due to their incompetence."

Still working on issues seven months later

The temporary certificate from Transport Canada expired in June, then another expired at the end of October that year.

In October 2007 BC Ferries sought permission to put the Northern Advernture into the "delegated statutory inspection program," which would have reduced Transport Canada's role inspecting the ship.

Transport Canada's Chowdrey hand wrote on a copy of BC Ferries' letter a note saying vessel had not officially passed even a first inspection and therefore wouldn't qualify for the program.

"Please be advised that the vessel's passenger ship safety certificate is short-termed due to outstanding issues that have not yet resolved," Lawson responded for the agency to BC Ferries vice president Mark Collins about the matter. "Thereby, the vessel does not meet the criteria for delegation at this time."

Keep in mind that Lawson wrote his letter citing unresolved issues some seven months after Transport Canada had given the temporary certification to the vessel, much of which it had spent carrying passengers between Northern Vancouver Island, Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii.

Records show that in November that year BC Ferries and Transport Canada were still clearing up issues around lifeboats, a fire control plan, exit signs, floor coverings, watertight doors and an oily water separator.

On Nov. 23, 2007, BC Ferries Ng wrote to Trzesicki at Transport Canada: "Thanks Jerzy for your patience."

Inspectors missed 'serious safety deficiency'

A year after the Northern Adventure went into service, with Transport Canada's approval, another inspector with the agency brought a newly discovered "fairly serious safety deficiency" on the vessel to the attention of two directors in Ottawa.

Inspections had revealed that the wrong kind of valves had been used in the bilge system, Aloak Tewari, the manager of inspection services in Vancouver, wrote to Richard Day and Victor Santos-Pedro.

Instead of using non-return valves that only allow the flow of water in one direction -- off the vessel -- the ship builders had fitted it with motorised butterfly valves, he said. "These valves are not spring loaded and are electrically opened and closed."

He explained why that's a problem: "Fitting such valves jeopardises the watertight integrity of the entire vessel, as flooding of any one of the connected compartments has the potential to flood the others too."

The drawings which Transport Canada had approved a year earlier showed "non-return butterfly valves," he said, before pointing out a problem he implies should have been obvious: "Of course there is no such thing as a non-return butterfly valve."

Tewari said in that April 2008 email that they were "attending to the deficiencies" with the Northern Adventure's valves.

BC Ferries' spokesperson Deborah Marshall said a temporary solution to "mitigate risk" was found in 2008 and a permanent fix is still to come. "The bilge valve of the Northern Adventure will be changed out this winter while the ship is non-operational," she wrote in an email.

Since 2008 the ship has had "temporary check valves" in the bilge lines, which were approved by both Lloyd's Register and Transport Canada, she said.  [Tyee]

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