Rules changed after oil tanker near-miss

Ottawa changes 30-year-old shipping rule after oil tanker nearly runs aground in post-Christmas storm off Newfoundland.

The federal government has changed 30-year-old shipping rules affecting ships off Newfoundland after a winter storm two weeks ago led to a near-accident involving an oil tanker.

From now on, tankers must stay 20 miles south of the pilot station at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland's busiest harbour, until they are assured a local pilot can meet them to guide them safely in.

The Harmony came close to running aground in stormy seas in the bay on the island's south coast on Dec. 27, 2004.

It was coming in to pick up a load of stored crude from the offshore oil fields when the weather took an unexpected turn for the worse. The wind speed climbed to 130 km/h, or 70 knots.

Before the incident, federal shipping rules decreed that a big ship must stop a few miles from its destination and wait for an experienced local pilot to be brought out.

The pilot then guides the tanker around any rocks and shoals to a safe berth.

But in the Dec. 27 incident, the weather was too bad for the pilot to be dispatched from shore, so the tanker was directed to leave Placentia Bay.

It took hours just to turn around in the narrow bay, however. During that time, wave and wind action pushed the Harmony out of the safe, deep waters of the shipping lane and close to a rocky shoal.

"They're not the most manoeuvrable vessels in the world at any point," said Ray Browne, a Coast Guard employee who chairs the Placentia Bay Transportation Committee. "But having said that, we've operated for 30 years out there, and this has never happened before."

Brown says the tanker wasn't carrying any oil, and the crew skillfully handled the situation.

The incident brought a speedy rule change, however, as federal officials and shipping firms agreed they couldn't risk a repeat. Now tankers have to stay 20 miles out until they're given the green light to proceed.

Area home to crab fishery, seabird reserve

About 500 oil tankers make the trip in to Placentia Bay every year, and the bay is also home to a lucrative crab fishery and a seabird reserve.

Fisherman Earle Johnson says the oil tankers have been very careful, but he's still worried about a mishap that could ruin his livelihood.

"We're always expecting something is going to happen," he said. "There's a lot of rocks in Placentia Bay for 'em to bring up pretty solid on."

John Henley is the president of Newfoundland Transshipment Limited, which stores crude oil at a facility on Placentia Bay. He supports the new rule.

"It's important for our business and important for everybody else," he said. "We all have a vested interest in keeping that bay a safe, secure place to operate."