British Columbia

As container ship smoulders off B.C. coast, environmental concerns remain

While a fire on a container ship near Victoria, B.C., continues, some observers are expressing concerns about potential environmental impacts.

Some of the containers on board the MV Zim Kingston contain a hazardous chemical

Ships work to control a fire onboard the MV Zim Kingston about eight kilometres from the Victoria shore on Sunday. The container ship caught fire on Saturday and 16 crew members were evacuated and brought to the Breakwater District Pier. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

While a fire on a container ship near Victoria, B.C., continues, some observers are expressing concerns about potential environmental impacts.

The Canadian Coast Guard said Monday there are still pockets of flame on the deck of the MV Zim Kingston and some containers may have internal fires.

Meanwhile, stormy weather is causing some problems for the clean-up efforts.

"It's quite windy, and the waves are also significant, which is preventing the ability of the salvagers to transfer onto the ship, so we need to wait until that's safe," the Coast Guard's Mariah McCooey said.

The ship caught fire on Saturday, but the trouble began a day earlier when about 40 containers fell overboard during "very heavy weather conditions," according to the vessel's operator, ZIM Integrated Shipping Services.

So far, the ship's difficulties haven't led to a fuel spill, and the province says there hasn't been any environmental damage.

But two of the burning containers hold a hazardous material identified as potassium amylxanthate, which is listed as a "reactive flammable material" by the Canadian Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System. Two of the lost containers do as well.

That adds additional danger to the situation, according to Heather Buckley, an engineering professor and chemist at the University of Victoria.

"One of the big challenges with potassium amylxanthate is it has the potential, on exposure to water, to react and form a flammable gas," she said.

The chemical on its own is corrosive and an irritant, which could cause problems for marine mammals.

"These mammals are immersed in this water, so anything they come in contact with comes in contact with their eyes, their respiratory tract — their entire body," Buckley said.

Marine oil spill prevention consultant Gerald Graham said it's lucky there hasn't been a fuel spill, but he worries about what might happen in the future.

"We need better preparedness for actual spill response," he said.

In Canada, the owner of a vessel is legally responsible for cleaning up after an incident, but Graham argues it's time to rethink that approach.

"I think we're relying too much on the private sector, the polluter, to arrange the response when in fact it's the Coast Guard that has to have on-the-water capability," he said.

Windy weather has also prevented the shipping company from retrieving the lost containers, which are currently drifting off the west coast of Vancouver Island, according to the Coast Guard.

After the fire started, the Joint Rescue and Coordination Centre in Victoria said 16 crew members were safely taken off the ship, while five others, including the captain, decided to stay on board.

With files from Joel Ballard