Runaway Simushir may be safe now, but BC's coast is anything but

Rafe: Runaway Simushir may be safe now; BC’s coast is anything but

Runaway Simushir may be safe now, but BC's coast is anything but
The Simushir under tow from US tugboat Barbara Foss (via Maritime Forces Pacific Facebook)

The incapacitation of a Russian cargo vessel off Haida Gwaii caused great panic amongst all of us who watched the events unfold over the past weekend. The seas were very heavy – not an unusual state of affairs for that part of the world at this and other times of the year.

For very good reason, the Haida Nation was extremely worried and upset about the developments. It looked up for a while is if they might have to deal with this themselves and, course, although they were prepared to use and sacrifice their own vessels, none of these were built for this kind of an emergency. Eventually, the chance intervention of an American tugboat got the situation under control.

During the time of this emergency, the story was covered regularly on the BBC and CNN, in addition to our own local news. It was a national and international news event. One ship! No accident! No oil-soaked beaches! No dead and dying birds!

What about hundreds of oil tankers?

This being so with one vessel in trouble off our coast – and far from the first – what are the risks when the number of tankers off the coast is in the hundreds, plus those coming out of Vancouver and Howe Sound? The risks involved are enormous. If one vessel, not carrying bitumen, can threaten this much damage and cause so much concern, consider that we’re bound to have that happen over and over again. The law of averages means we’ll have accidents. Indeed, the law of averages is that we will have accidents on an ongoing basis – as a group of learned fossil fuel transport engineers found after examining Enbridge’s plans.

In addition to tankers carrying bitumen from the Enbridge pipeline, if, heaven forbid, it ends up being built, we have the prospect of more tankers on the south coast from Kinder Morgan’s planned pipeline expansion to Burnaby. The very minimum number of extra tankers a year coming out of Vancouver will be 404 – more than one per day. In addition to that, there will be, if the LNG plant goes ahead in Squamish, another 40 tankers coming out of Howe Sound.

(Let me pause there for a moment. It has taken us 50 years to clean up Howe Sound after Britannia mines, pulp mills and so on. We now have salmon back, herring back, shellfish back, whales back – the whole recovery has been a near miracle made possible by the efforts of the people of British Columbia. Now all of this is jeopardized so that an Indonesian billionaire can make buckets of money providing virtually no employment and no money to the local community or the province.)

Accidents happen

The companies, of course, say that they have a great safety record and that they don’t think that anything will happen. Companies say this all the time and have hugely expensive public relations departments and outside agencies to help them disseminate that message.

The problem, is obvious – notwithstanding all of the optimism of the companies and governments, accidents will happen. You cannot have something in the order of 450 huge tankers a year coming out of the harbour of Vancouver and Howe Sound without having accidents – they are inevitable.

It is not just a question of an accident that we must concern ourselves with. If the accident is going to be a benign one, or one where very little damage is done, that’s one thing. The fact of the matter is that a serious accident to a tanker will be catastrophic. Remember the Exxon Valdez, which was carrying ordinary crude oil, not bitumen. As this incident and the Enbridge catastrophe in the Kalamazoo River teaches us, is all but impossible to clean up.

Kinder Morgan would change Vancouver forever

Like many of you, I have lived in the greater Vancouver area all my life. Many of you will have been here for a number of years; even those who have just arrived will know of the beauties of our harbour, the Salish Sea, the Gulf Islands, and the southern part of Vancouver Island. For the vast majority of us, this is why we live here.

I must confess to you that I have forgotten about the beauties of the many beaches in Vancouver itself. I have forgotten the joys I had as a child and then as a younger person using these beaches. I have forgotten how important these beaches are to tourism. I have forgotten how beautiful these beaches are and how much their very presence adds to the enjoyment of people who live here.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? We all become so familiar with the wonderful surroundings in which we live that we tend to ignore them. All of these things, however, when we think about them, become hugely important to us. And we are about to jeopardize all of that in order to transport highly toxic bitumen from the Tar Sands to the Far East.

Saving BC falls to provincial, local governments

We tend to forget that the ultimate responsibility for this rests with the provincial government. We have to pretty much forget the feds. It’s true, that they are the ones that will approve the pipelines but the provincial government and indeed local governments have a great many ways to curtail them while Ottawa – the Harper version – has no intention of doing so.

Let’s face it, the federal government is hopeless. They simply do not care. They go through the motions, always knowing what the results will be.

We know that the prime minister and his idiotic finance minister, Joe Oliver, have already committed to both the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and Kinder Morgan. They really don’t care what the National Energy Board, their poodle, says anymore than they care about what the people of British Columbia think.

While they are the ones we really ought to be petitioning, we know that’s hopeless. One only has to look at what BC Tory MPs are saying. Like the little pet parrotts they are, they all squawk the government line.

The responsibility rests with Premier Clark and her government. There are a great many things that she can do to stop both of the pipelines and any subsequent tanker traffic.

Premier Clark abdicates duty

Here is the problem – premier Clark and her government have no intention of doing a damned thing.

Why do I say that?

She is in thrall to foreign energy companies. All one has to do is look at their policy with respect to liquefied natural gas (LNG). LNG plants contribute tankers just as pipelines do. In the case of the one proposed for Squamish in Howe Sound, there will be at least 40 tankers per year if we accept the company’s word. Though they may not be carrying bitumen, they are hardly without risk – and catastrophic risk at that.

World-Class rhetoric

I must confess that I am sick and tired of hearing about “world-class accident prevention” and “world-class recovery” after the accident that wasn’t going to happen.

World-class means absolutely nothing. They are two words intended to comfort us all without having any specific guarantee attached to them. They are just words without substance. Moreover, what we do know of as “world-class” isn’t worth a damn if we look at the results of tanker accidents around the world.

Moment of truth

We are coming, as a people, to the moment of truth. The National Energy Board – which incidentally won’t let you ask questions of their witnesses – will approve the Kinder Morgan pipeline. That having happened, who’s to stop 404 bitumen-laden tankers?

Now is the time we must let this provincial government know, in no uncertain terms, what we feel and the consequences we will visit upon them at election time if they ignore us.

Christy Clark is the premier of British Columbia, for God’s sake! She and her government have a sworn duty to protect us and the environment in which we live. Her obligation is not to LNG companies, or the tar sands or pipeline companies, nor to those who own the tankers, but to us, the citizens and the place in which we live.

Surely, we must hold her to that duty.


About Rafe Mair

Rafe Mair, LL.B, LL.D (Hon) a B.C. MLA 1975 to 1981, was Minister of Environment from late 1978 through 1979. In 1981 he left politics for Talk Radio becoming recognized as one of B.C.'s pre-eminent journalists. An avid fly fisherman, he took a special interest in Atlantic salmon farms and private power projects as environmental calamities and became a powerful voice in opposition to them. Rafe is the co-founder of The Common Sense Canadian and writes a regular blog at

7 thoughts on “Rafe: Runaway Simushir may be safe now; BC’s coast is anything but

  1. The Simushir, the Russian freighter adrift off Haida Gwai, was approximately 10,000 tons deadweight and after 3 failed attempts to put it under tow, it took an 8,000 horsepower tug to get it back to port.

    For all the trouble it took to get that ship under control, it was about 3% of the deadweight of the largest of the bitumen tankers that Enbridge is proposing to take in and out of Kitimat. Being an engineer but not a seafarer, I would estimate that you might need 100,000 horsepower, maybe more, to handle one such tanker with loss of power in similar sea conditions, which were far from the worst that can be experienced in that area.

    After this incident, Enbridge were giving assurances that they would have two tugs of 10,000 to 12,000 horsepower each to call on for such an emergency, so everything would be alright. No worries.

    1) The tugs wouldn’t be in close escort that far from the mainland, they could be up to 20 or more hours sailing time away.

    2) Even if there were the maximum towing power available that Enbridge promise, I would have no confidence that 2 such tugs could hold a 350,000 ton tanker in a major storm.

    3) The tugs that Enbridge were talking about are not yet built. The prospective use of these tugs is mainly for inshore waters. Economics is likely to dictate that they would be built to the lower end of the stated power range, even below it.

    Power loss and steering loss are more frequent events in ships than is commonly reported. That is one of the facts contained in an excellent, very enlightening — and scary — report on risks associated with double-hulled tankers and a history of tankers disasters published by the Living Oceans Society of Sointula, available here:

    I strongly suggest that anybody who hasn’t read this report already should do so. It puts the lie to all the implied claims of guaranteed safety for double-hulled tankers.

    Bottom line: if one of these bitumen behemoths lost control in a major storm off Haida Gwai, there is little chance that the ship and its cargo would NOT end up on the rocks — if it didn’t break up in the storm before that. The statistics on the frequency of ship control failure given in the above report suggest that there is a significant probability of such an event within a few years of a Northern Gateway pipeline being in operation.

  2. Perhaps common sense people should wake up and look at how successive governments (Liberal and Conservative) have raped the Canadian Coast Guard. CCG need staff, inshore boats, ships,, and perhaps even ocean going tugs to order to protect our waterways now and in the future.

  3. We were lucky. And if we continue to depend on luck, we are fools. This near-miss should be all the warning we need, but I bet the provincial and federal mouth-pieces try to spin it all and convince us it was good planning and proof of our world class whatever … but it was blind luck…
    The Exxon Valdez should have been all the warning needed. All these years later , in spite of huge sums spent, the mess hasn’t been cleaned up, it is still obvious and the impact on wildlife continues. Worse, all those good people who surged out in their own small boats to try to clean up the mess… are dead of illnesses caused by the oil and by the “dispersants” used to try to remedy the mess. People in Louisiana and Florida who tried to help when the Deepwater Horizon blow out happened are showing signs of illnesses the doctors there have never before seen, illness believed caused by oil exposure and by dispersants.
    Do they need the message written across the sky in flaming letters? That shite isn’t safe!

    The mess in the Kalamazoo River should have shown what “world class” safety standards there are in place.

    Maybe we need a tee shirt with the picture of an oil soaked sea bird and the message “world class my ass”…

    Lady Luck was on our side this time. But we can’t depend on that. I don’t care if the billionaires never squeeze another dime out of the oil patch. This coast deserves all the protection we can give it.

    Thank you for this article.

  4. Our Canadian politicians puff their chests up and shake their fists at the world, big business, who ever is the “enemy of the day”


    That is the problem – Canada is being governed by a government that manufactures truth and actively promotes crisis for it’s own devious ends. Case in point, look at how Harpers is forecasting that Ebola can reach Canada quickly ! Duh – what sort of man capitilizes on emergency situation for his own needs – Harper does. Special note today, of how the Cons-ervative MP’s tried to create another crisis by announcing in the house of commons
    Monday, of a “one man” terrorist attack on Canada. Kind of leaves you speechless does it not.

    Whilst Harper and his party in power, Canada will never be more that hot air rhetorical bumbling fools.

    Time to vote the Cons-ervative government out of power and replace it.



  5. Re “Saving BC falls to province, local government” I live in Squamish. The complacency here amongst some citizens re LNG in Howe Sound is atrocious. They shrug their shoulders and say “oh well it’s in the hands of the province” to which I am now replying ” Last time I checked, Squamish is still in BC and we are paying taxes to BC government so we have a right and responsibility to speak up and stand up for Squamish” We can be an activist or a couchivist. Thank you Rafe for being such a great activist.

  6. Well stated Rafe.
    I watched the news on the weekend with dread and a sense of bemusement.
    One tug arrived to “save the day” and it was American.
    How typical.
    Our Canadian politicians puff their chests up and shake their fists at the world, big business, who ever is the “enemy of the day”

    When the chips are down, due to budget cutbacks or, in the case of the navy, coast guard, etc.
    Canadian politicians, talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk about “synergies” and “empowerment” and all the other bullshit that means NOTHING and , more importantly , costs NOTHING.

    Our political system needs an enema.

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