British Columbia

B.C. shipwreck's oil cleanup makes waves

The Canadian Coast Guard has launched what it's calling one of its largest operations ever to clean up a Second World War-era wreck that's leaking oil off the coast of B.C.

U.S. army transport ship Brig.-Gen. M.G. Zalinski has been leaking fuel since sinking in 1946

The hot tapping process intended to empty about 600 tonnes of oil from the Zalinski has been used around the world to clean up other shipwrecks. Click on the image above to see the steps in the process.

The Canadian Coast Guard has launched what it's calling one of its largest operations ever to clean up a Second World War-era wreck that's leaking oil off the coast of B.C.

But some say the rusting hulk of the U.S. army transport ship that sank nearly 70 years ago may have unwittingly sailed right into the middle of B.C.'s pipeline controversy

Lying in about 30 metres of water, 100 kilometres south of Prince Rupert, the fuel tanks of the Brig.-Gen. M.G. Zalinski are rusting away.

Any week, month or year now, the bulkheads inside could collapse, releasing up to 600 tonnes of bunker oil into the waters of the Grenville Channel, part of B.C.'s famous Inside Passage route.

It's a good thing, then, that the potential environmental catastrophe is finally being cleaned up.

And you'd think the nearby First Nations and local fishermen who have spent decades lobbying Ottawa to set aside money for the operation would be thrilled.

Think again.

To many, the nearly 70-year-old wreck has been thrust into a debate over oil and oil tankers on the West Coast for all the wrong reasons.

The American crewmen who suddenly found themselves piling into lifeboats one fall day in 1946 could scarcely have imagined the highly politicized waters their doomed ship was sinking into.

The Zalinski was a 70-metre former Great Lakes freighter that had been drafted into the U.S. war effort in 1941. Its regular route was sailing up Canada's Inside Passage to Alaska, ferrying supplies to U.S. bases.

Crew members of the Zalinski were rescued by two ships after the U.S. army transport vessel sank in the Grenville Channel in 1946. (Nick Zardis)

On Sept 26, 1946, faced with a tough deadline, an overworked ship's pilot and a brutal storm, the Zalinski hit the rocks on Pitt Island and sank within 25 minutes.

All on board escaped to lifeboats, leaving the cargo of food, munitions and nearly full fuel tanks in about 30 metres of water.

The exact location of the wreck remained unknown, but for half a century First Nations fishermen from Hartley Bay, located about 20 kilometres away, reported oil slicks surfacing in the area.

It wasn't until 2003 that the location of the wreck was pinpointed and the push for the oil to be drained gathered momentum.

Options explored

The Canadian Coast Guard's preferred option was to patch up holes in the Zalinski's rusting hull.

But the political will to spend the tens of millions of dollars required for a cleanup operation in arguably the most remote, sparsely populated part of the B.C. coast just wasn't there.

Until now.

'It's one of the biggest things the coast guard has ever done,' says Canadian Coast Guard assistant commissioner Roger Girouard. (CBC)

"It's one of the biggest things the coast guard has ever done," coast guard assistant commissioner Roger Girouard told CBC News on a recent visit to the Zalinski wreck site.

"She burps pretty frequently, which is why we've chosen to do this."

Girouard's team has set up what amounts to a floating village in nearby Lowe Inlet. Barges are packed with oil booms, cranes, nets and scrubbers. There's heavy equipment, rescue boats and motorized launches.

The coast guard has even towed in a fishing lodge to serve as home base for up to 100 workers as they spend two-week shifts working on the project.

On the nearby mountainside, new cellphone and satellite towers keep the operation tied into a central command centre in downtown Prince Rupert 100 kilometres away.

The expected price tag for the cleanup is $50 million.

"It won't be a cheap operation," said Girouard. "But we could see over the last few years we were spending a lot of money on a piecemeal effort. It’s time to get on top, do it right and clean it up to the maximum degree possible once and for all."

The coast guard website says that because of the precarious position of the vessel — upside down, on a steep underwater cliff — all efforts to ensure a safe and effective operation will be undertaken. (Canadian Coast Guard)

The coast guard has hired Dutch salvage specialists Mammoet to remove oil through an operation known as "hot-tapping."

The oil in the Zalinski's tanks will be heated up and then pumped through hoses to the surface, a fairly standard procedure under normal circumstances.

But there are a lot of big ifs for this operation.

For one, the tides in Grenville Channel, which run about 10 km/h, will restrict divers to working in short bursts when the tide changes.

And then there's the weather. More often than not, it's windy and rainy this time of year at the wreck site, and gusty conditions will halt operations.

Sudden urgency questioned

Still, the plan is to try to get all the oil out by December.

But why push hard, some are asking. Why not wait till better weather in the spring?

Prince Rupert fisherman Des Nobels said he wonders about the rush.

Prince Rupert fisherman Des Nobel believes the cleanup was sparked by Ottawa's desire to make a political statement about Canada's ability to handle a major oil spill. (CBC)

"That oil has been there for 70 years and there have been many calls to deal with it. And now all of a sudden it's happening? Why?"

The answer, he believes, is Ottawa's desire to make a political statement about Canada's ability to handle a major oil spill.

"I think it's a PR campaign, both federally and provincially, to mollify the concerns of the public in terms of their ability to deal with spills on this coast."

Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, who hails from Hartley Bay, reads it the same way.

"The Git'gat people are very skeptical of a ship that has been sitting in their traditional territory leaking oil for 60 years and then the federal government comes along and says they are going to do something about it."

The December completion date for the Zalinski project also happens to coincide with the National Energy Board's timeline for making a decision on the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.

The pipeline plan, which has been opposed by First Nations and environmentalists, calls for more than 200 tanker trips per year to move crude oil from Alberta from a facility on B.C.'s North Coast to markets in Asia.

Getting the Zalinski operation over and done with by then would appear to tick off a couple of key points on Ottawa's previously published list of conditions for approving tankers on the coast.

In particular, the coast guard is using a new incident command system for the Zalinski operation, which Ottawa said was required for dealing with any future oil spills.

The coast guard's Girouard concedes that some may be cynical about the timing of the Zalinski operation.

But he insists the motivation is guided by environmental considerations, not political ones.

A diver investigates the wreck of the Zalinski. (Brain Nadwidny)

"We put together this proposal on the last three years of events that we saw," he said.

"Do we walk away with some lessons and capabilities that might lend themselves to the bigger piece? Probably, in fact, unquestionably, but it's not built or focused on that."

Perhaps not, but anything and everything to do with oil on B.C.'s coast is bound to create a political storm these days.

And 70 years after it left port, the Zalinski has sailed straight into one.


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