Nova Scotia

Town hopes Ottawa's crackdown on abandoned boats means cash to get rid of them

As coastal communities grapple with old boats left to rust and decay along their shorelines, there are hopes Ottawa's promise of stricter rules surrounding abandoned vessels will help curb the problem and better hold owners to account.

Federal fund that compensates for ship-oil cleanup costs says it has tough time tracking down owners

The vessel Farley Mowat is shown in Shelburne in December 2015. (CBC)

As coastal communities grapple with old boats left to rust and decay along their shorelines, some are waiting to see if Ottawa's promise of stricter rules will curb the problem of abandoned vessels and better hold owners to account. 

The issue is apparent in Nova Scotia, where the federal government's Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund is chasing the alleged owners of three derelict vessels for $1.8 million to cover cleanup and refloating costs after they sank and leaked oil.

One of them, the former anti-sealing vessel Farley Mowat, continues to decay at the Port of Shelburne two years after it was towed in and left. It's already sunk once, leaking oil, and Shelburne Mayor Karen Mattatall said she fears the same will happen again.

"It should not be our responsibility to foot a bill like that to remove a derelict vessel that we didn't want and are now stuck with," she said.

The Farley Mowat, she said, has already cost Shelburne about $150,000 in lost wharfage fees and expenses associated with regularly pumping water to keep it afloat.

The town hopes the federal government's new plan to address derelict and abandoned vessels will mean money to get rid of the ship. It has written to federal Transportation Minister Marc Garneau, but has not yet heard back.

Finding owners isn't easy

The Canadian Coast Guard spent more $800,000 containing pollution and refloating the Farley Mowat after it sank in June 2015. The Ship-source Oil Pollution fund is also going after the alleged owners of the Cormorant and Ryan Atlantic II, both of which sank in the LaHave River.

The defendants in each case explicitly deny they are the owners or argue they are not responsible for the vessel.

It's a common thread in many cases dealt with by the pollution fund, which dispenses compensation for cleanups to groups that do the work, such as the Canadian Coast Guard, when the ship owner refuses to pay or can't be found.

In such situations, the fund takes on the task of trying to recoup costs. But determining who owns an abandoned vessel is hard enough, and finding an owner with assets is even rarer.

"That's an issue. This is a big chunk of what we pay," said Anne Legars, the administrator of the pollution fund, which uses the interest accrued from a 1970s oil levy. "We pay a lot of de-pollution costs related to abandoned and derelict vessels. This is difficult."

Oceans protection plan

Crews work in May 2015 to clean out the Cormorant, a former navy diving vessel that was listing badly in Bridgewater. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Legars said she's looking forward to learning the details of new rules promised under the Trudeau government's oceans protection plan, which was announced this fall.

"My understanding, in a very generic way, is that it will help greatly," she said.

The plan says people will be prohibited from abandoning vessels, the system to identify owners will be improved and the federal government will have more power to move boats before they become a major problem.

Legars said the pollution fund only recovers between five and 10 per cent of what it pays out in compensation each year, in large part because owners of abandoned vessels are too hard to find.

'Under the cover of darkness'

Some of the new rules have been plucked from a private member's bill introduced by South Shore-St. Margaret's MP Bernadette Jordan. She said there are nine abandoned vessels in her riding alone, and at least 600 across the country.

One of the loopholes that will be closed, she said, is that vessels bought for scrap did not have to be registered under the Canada Shipping Act, even though commercial vessels do. When the market for scrap metal bottomed out, she said, some owners simply jumped ship.

"They literally will come in under the cover of darkness in some cases and just tie up at a wharf and walk away," she said.

Under the new rules, she said, it will be against the law to do that and vessel owners will be liable for any cleanup as the result of abandonment or irresponsible management.

'They've done everything legally possible'

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      The government will also draw up a list of problem vessels, Jordan said. She points to Shelburne, where the town convinced a judge to send the alleged owner of the Farley Mowat, Tracy Dodds, to jail for 20 days after he did not move the ship.

      "They've done everything legally possible to get rid of the vessel that's left at their wharf," Jordan said. "It takes up a quarter of their wharf space. That's prime real estate for them and they can't do anything about it."

      The Farley Mowat and the Cormorant are some of the largest cases the Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund has dealt with in the last decade.

      Communities 'scrambling'

      The fund has launched actions in Federal Court. It is seeking $839,863.02 to cover compensation it paid to the Canadian Coast Guard for the Farley Mowat cleanup, $534,340.76 related to the Cormorant, and $382,353.33 for a third ship, the Ryan Atlantic II.

      Over the last decade, the fund has paid between $104,000 and $2.5 million a year in compensation. Legars said she has communities "knock at the door" of the pollution fund trying to access money to deal with abandoned vessels.

      But right now she must tell them the fund is only for cases where oil has leaked or spilled from a ship, and does not cover other kinds of pollution or hazards.

      "I know that these communities are sometimes scrambling to find a way to get rid of these vessels," she said.