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Ship’s lawyers discount estuary toxic levels

Coast Guard not concerned about post-spill hydrocarbons in estuary

By Vivian Moreau

Lawyers for the ship that fouled Squamish estuary after a 30,000-litre fuel spill in August are challenging the provincial Ministry of Environment’s clean-up orders.

Contending that the province has no jurisdiction over ship-source pollution, maritime lawyers for Gearbulk Canada, owners of the Norwegian cargo ship Westwood Anette, recently filed an appeal with the provincial Environmental Appeal Board.

Shortly after the Aug. 4 incident in which the Westwood Anette bumped Squamish terminal pilings and punctured a fuel tank, allowing high winds to push ship fuel into adjacent estuary channels, the province issued Gearbulk Canada with a three-part pollution abatement order.

Peter Swanson, a founding partner in Vancouver-based Bernard and Partners, represents the ship owners and has asked for a stay on two of the province’s three orders that deal with implementation of wildlife and environmental impact assessment plans.

“We say that the province cannot constitutionally legislate with respect to ship-source pollution,” Swanson said from his Vancouver office, “and the Environmental Act under which they issued the pollution abatement order is purporting to do something that we say they cannot do constitutionally.”

Although environmental consultants hired by the ship owners completed environmental assessments by a Sept. 30 deadline imposed by the province, Gearbulk Canada is balking at continued long-term monitoring.

Swanson says company’s lack of fault in the accident, as determined by federal Transportation Safety Board, and the fact that the province has never before issued a ship-source pollution abatement order prompted the appeal.

“It really is just a question of who, if anyone, can tell us what to do,” Swanson said, “and our position is that we should be dealing with the federal government on these things, not the provincial government.”

Ministry of Environment lawyers have agreed to a stay on two of the three items in the pollution abatement order pending the appeal, expected to be heard in February.

Swanson maintains that all estuary clean-up work has been completed and discounted District of Squamish’s concerns about high levels of bunker sea fuel residue remaining in estuary sediments. Sediment sampling authorized by the district show levels of hydrocarbons, chemicals found in bunker sea fuel, almost 1,000 times provincial safety standards.

“I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but you have to look to the experts — Ministry of Environment and federal Environment Canada — and say are the experts satisfied with what’s happening? In this case the answer is yes they are.”

Coast Guard officials agree.

“We’re not concerned (about high levels of hydrocarbons) because federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, U.S. and U.K. science information that’s out there says those chemicals are benign and they have the experience of hundreds of spills behind them,” Coast Guard spokesperson Dan Bate said. “The amount of damage caused going into the marsh with an excavator would far exceed any risk from those contaminants.”

Disturbing mercury deposits already present in estuary sediment from heavy metal weathering would prove more harmful than weathered oil, he said.

Squamish’s environment coordinator says there are only pockets of mercury deposits within the estuary and maintains it is better to scoop out the whole mess rather than let it brew.

“It makes absolutely no sense that you don’t remove hydrocarbon contamination in the estuary because it’s already contaminated with mercury,” Francesca Knight said. “If you were going to make the case that we need to get these hydrocarbons out of there you’re only going to be benefiting the mercury situation.”