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If Drifting Ship Hits Haida Gwaii, 'It's Going to Be a Mess'

Officials says powerless, fuel-laden Russian vessel not currently headed towards land.

David P Ball 17 Oct 2014TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

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Simushir, under its former name before it changed ownership in 2012. Photo: Fleetmon.com.

The former president of the Haida Nation is warning of potentially disastrous impacts if a fuel-laden Russian container ship runs aground on the west coast of Moresby Island.

Giindajin Haawasti Guujaaw said that with storm warnings in effect, and five-metre waves, he is afraid that the drifting, 135-metre ship Simushir will hit shore, having lost power around 1:30 a.m.

"The area that it's heading towards, the west coast of Moresby Island, is a toothed, rocky place," Guujaaw said. "If it gets up there, they're not going to get it off."

The renowned artist and leader is on the scene in Old Massett village, where the nation has set up an emergency monitoring station and is in close communication with the Coast Guard. He said the captain of the Russian vessel is injured, reportedly from a heart attack.

The Simushir is loaded with containers "carrying hydrocarbons, mining materials and other related chemicals," said acting sub-lieutenant Ron MacDougall with the Joint Rescue Co-Coordination Centre Victoria, a facility run jointly by the Canadian Forces and Canadian Coast Guard.

MacDougall said though "the weather on scene is currently severe, it's expected to ease," and that northeasterly winds are currently carrying the ship parallel to the shoreline about 14 kilometres from shore, so landfall isn't expected.

"It is not moving toward to Haida Gwaii, not right now," he said, adding that the captain has been evacuated by air with unknown injuries. That leaves another 10 crew still awaiting evacuation. The coast guard ship Gordon Reid is set to be the first boat on scene, but is not expected to arrive until 3 p.m.

Helicopters considered for rescue

According to the Council of the Haida Nation, the ship is carrying 500 tonnes of bunker fuel and 60 tonnes of diesel, and lost power in the early morning. A council Facebook announcement at 9:48 a.m. said the ship is located about 19 kilometres west of Gowgaia Bay.

"It's absolutely pristine out there," Guujaaw said. "It's a world heritage site in that region."

He added that the ship is too far to be reached by rescue boats, but that helicopters are being considered to rescue the crew. Haida council announced that two tugboats were deployed from Prince Rupert and Alaska, but could not reach the location for 20 hours.

The ship is 16 years old and has a gross tonnage of 6,540 tonnes. Its last port of call was Port Angeles, Washington on Wednesday, according to Automatic Identification System data, which states the ship is destined for Provideniya, in Russia's remote north-east.

The council predicted a crash landing early this afternoon. The area in currently facing a storm warning, according to Environment Canada, with easterly winds of 35 to 45 knots pushing the ship towards shore.

"It's something like five metre [waves] or more out there," Guujaaw said. "There was a storm last night and there's more on the way."

The often-violent seas of B.C.'s northwest coast have increased concerns over Enbridge's plan to ship diluted bitumen from its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to buyers in Asia. In July, Haida and other First Nations launched a lawsuit against the planned pipeline, which gained federal approval earlier this year.

"They talk about world-class cleanup," Guujaaw noted. "But it's going to be a mess."  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy

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