Nova Scotia

3 vessels that sank at N.S. ports at centre of lawsuits, but who owns them?

Three derelict vessels that sank at Nova Scotia ports and leaked oil are tangled up in $1.8 million in lawsuits, denials of ownership, finger-pointing and allegations of sabotage.

The polluter typically pays for cleanup under Canadian law, but no one admits to owning the vessels

The Farley Mowat was abandoned at the wharf in Shelburne, N.S., in September 2013 and left to decay. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Three derelict vessels that sank at Nova Scotia ports and leaked oil are tangled up in $1.8 million in lawsuits, denials of ownership, finger-pointing and allegations of sabotage.

The decommissioned navy vessel Cormorant, the former anti-sealing flagship Farley Mowat, and the Ryan Atlantic II, once featured in the television show Haven, are now little more than eyesores and rusting hulks of metal.

The Ryan Atlantic II, once known as the Cape Rouge, and the Cormorant both sank in the LaHave River at the same wharf in Bridgewater, in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The Farley Mowat also hit the bottom in 2015 after it was left at the Port of Shelburne.

The Canadian Coast Guard spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise each vessel, contain oil and clean up pollution. It sent the bill to a federal government fund that compensates agencies for cleaning up oil pollution from ships.

Lawsuits launched

The Ryan Atlantic II, once known as the Cape Rouge, sank in the LaHave River in 2014. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

The fund administrator is going after the vessel owners to recoup $534,340.76 related to the Cormorant, $839,863.02 for the Farley Mowat and $382,353.33 for the Ryan Atlantic II.

But who should pay?

Ownership is an issue that the court will have to decide.- William Moreira, lawyer

"Ownership is an issue that the court will have to decide," said William Moreira, lawyer for the Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund, which uses the interest accrued from a 1970s levy on oil imports and exports.

Canada has a so-called "polluter-pay principle" — owners are responsible for the costs of cleanup, monitoring and preventative measures related to oil discharged from their vessels.

The federal government has pledged to tighten rules surrounding vessel registration and forbid owners from abandoning vessels after a growing outcry about old boats being left to decay in harbours and along coastlines. 

Unknown ownership

But it must still deal with current problems.

In documents filed in Federal Court, the fund alleges both the Ryan Atlantic II and the Farley Mowat are owned by Tracy Dodds, a scrap metal dealer in Wolfville, N.S.

Dodds was jailed this summer for contempt of court for refusing to remove the Farley Mowat from Shelburne.

The vessel has been a thorn in the side of the town since it was docked there in 2014. The town says it is owed tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wharf fees.

Tracy Dodds was jailed for failing to obey a court order to remove the derelict ship the Farley Mowat. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

In a statement of defence, Dodds explicitly denies he owns the Ryan Atlantic II, says he sold it to an Enfield, N.S., man in 2010 and has proof of payment.

He also denies all allegations involving the Farley Mowat. Dodds claims he was not allowed access to the wharf and says the Shelburne Port Authority was the "last persons in immediate possession and control of the vessel."

Dodds did not respond to an interview request.

Late-night sabotage?

The Farley Mowat had been used by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to monitor illegal fishing.

It was seized by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2008 after the captain and first officer were arrested for interfering with the seal hunt. The vessel was sold at auction, and again later at a sheriffs' sale, and ended up in Dodds's hands.

The Farley Mowat sank at the wharf in Shelburne in 2015. (CBC)

The Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund is also suing the Port of Bridgewater, a numbered company, and a Texas man and his defunct corporation over the Cormorant.

In court documents and in an interview, Rick Welsford, owner of the Port of Bridgewater, denied he owns the former navy diving support vessel.

He also claimed the Cormorant, which was docked at the port, was sabotaged by someone who crept into the engine room and unbolted thru-hull valves, allowing seawater to pour in.

"In the case of the scuttling, it was a very dark, stormy night," Welsford said. "There was a lot of snowfall that night. Whoever came and went obviously came undetected."

HMCS Cormorant sank in 2015 while docked at the Port of Bridgewater. (Molly Segal / CBC)

Welsford said he does not know who would want to sabotage the vessel or why.

The statement of defence says due to the intentional damage to the valves, the port is not liable for the pollution, even if the court does find it owns the vessel.

His lawyer, Jay Straith, told CBC News he was informed by an RCMP officer that the vessel was sabotaged. An RCMP spokesperson was not able to immediately confirm that Friday.

'Bizarre situation'

Straith said the issue of ownership is complicated by the fact the vessel has never been registered under the Canada Shipping Act to anyone, including the federal government, which decommissioned it in 1997 and later sold it.

"It's a bizarre situation, but it's a recurring situation," he said, noting other abandoned vessels face the same ownership questions.

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

The Port of Bridgewater is countersuing a Texas man for $1 million, alleging he is the true owner of the vessel, and that he owes the port for wharfage fees and costs related to the Cormorant cleanup.

Neil Hjelle acknowledges his company bought the vessel in 2009, but says in court documents it was sold to a numbered company owned by Welsford in 2013 and he has the bill of sale to prove it.

He is also being sued by the Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund.

None of the allegations in any of the cases has been proven in court. No trial dates have been set.