Feds to patrol Arctic waters for polluters

Transport Canada is stepping up efforts to find ships that dump pollution into Arctic waters.

Transport Canada is stepping up efforts to find ships that dump pollution into Arctic waters.

The federal department is conducting its first extensive pollution surveillance program over the Mackenzie River, Churchill, Man., and Iqaluit, Nunavut.

Over the first three weeks of August, it will spend 100 hours looking for ships that illegally discharge harmful substances into the North's fragile marine environment.

"This year is the first time that we've set aside a period of operations solely dedicated to pollution surveillance," said Terry Melhuish of Transport Canada.

A DeHavilland Dash 7 aircraft has been outfitted with special equipment and a crew trained to look for illegal discharges— mainly oil— from ships in Arctic waters.

Melhuish said the program hasn't operated in the Arctic before because there was little marine traffic. Now, with warmer temperatures and decreasing ice, along with oil, gas and mining projects in the works, the Arctic is a much busier place.

Melhuish said Transport Canada is expecting more than the roughly 50 ships that were in the Arctic for transport, fishing, tourism or research last year.

Mystery spills last year

If a ship has a spill, it isobliged by law to report it, but that doesn't always happen.

"In 2005, there were six ships or spills reported," said Larry Trigatti of the Canadian Coast Guard, Central and Arctic Region. "In '04, we had 11. Half of those in both cases were sort of a mystery, where we could not trace it back to a polluter."

Transport Canada hopes its new program will deter illegal discharges before they occur.

Camera systems on the aircraft are linked to global positioning systems to give the flight crew an accurate position of a vessel at the time a discharge is noted.

Transport Canada will also register information about each ship it encounters along the way.

The information will be added to satellite data that is being gathered about twice a day in the Arctic.