By Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter CANADA’S NATIONAL OBSERVER
Vancouver Island MPs and residents are raising concerns about ocean protection and spill response after debris from shipping containers lost by MV Zim Kingston still appears to be washing ashore months after the cargo vessel caught fire in stormy weather.
The ship lost 109 shipping containers, two of which contained hazardous chemicals, in heavy seas off Victoria on Oct. 23, 2021.
“There are a lot of shipping containers still in the water,” said North Island MP Rachel Blaney on Tuesday, adding only four containers have been located so far.
“We’re not sure where they are and what’s inside of them, so a lot of constituents are very concerned and brought it to my attention.”
Blaney is sharing those concerns with Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, whose office is leading consultations to develop the federal government’s Oceans Protection Program.
Debris created by lost containers in the incident, and others like it, and the resulting environmental impacts on the region’s marine ecosystem and wildlife are people’s top priorities when it comes to ocean protection, Blaney said.
One of the primary problems is neither communities nor MPs have specifics on what was lost at sea, which could result in potential hazards for community groups cleaning beaches, harm to wildlife, or the inability to hold the shipping company accountable for the cleanup.
“We need to know what was on the ship’s manifest and what’s in the water,” Blaney said, adding it’s likely the debris will be landing on island shores for years.
Piles of twisted and soaked blue synthetic material and twisted plastic wrapping were collected during the latest cleanup at Cape Palmerston Beach on northwest Vancouver Island on Feb. 12, said Ashley Tapp of Epic Exeo, a non-profit shoreline cleanup group.
“It’s not regular marine debris, but I don’t have confirmation it’s from the cargo ship or not,” said Tapp, agreeing community stewardship groups only have a general idea of what’s in its containers.
“And there was a lot of it,” she said.
The material appeared similar to that used in surgical face masks or gowns, Tapp said, adding four large industrial-sized bags were filled with the textile and will eventually be helicoptered off the remote beach.
Cape Palmerston was also cleaned up at the end of October after the contents of one of the four containers found on the island’s northwest coast were strewn along the shore.
A total of 71 refrigerators, 81 bags of Styrofoam, and 11 helicopter bags of garbage were flown off the beach.
The Canadian Coast Guard said it is still working with the owner of the MV Zim Kingston to investigate and respond to reports of debris from the missing containers, the federal agency said in an email Wednesday.
The Coast Guard and the vessel’s owner are developing a plan to do a sonar scan of the area where the containers went overboard when the weather allows.
There will also be an assessment of the risk the containers could pose to the marine environment, the Coast Guard said, adding it can’t share the vessel’s manifest because it’s the property of the shipping company.
If people come across debris they believe came from the cargo ship, they should call the Marine Pollution Reporting Line at 1-800-889-8852, and reports will be forwarded to the owner, which has hired contractors to do appropriate cleanups.
The shipping company is also expected to survey beaches every couple of months where debris is likely to accumulate, the Coast Guard said.
In her submission to the federal government, Blaney said area First Nations and stewardship groups know the region best, and should be the first line of defence in responding to a spill.
The same people are likely to be cleaning the shores after authorities decide an ongoing response to the container spill is no longer necessary, she said, adding federal funding should support groups doing the work in the long run.
Blaney is also backing a motion by MP Lisa Marie Barron, the NDP’s fisheries and oceans critic, calling for the federal government to include a series of measures in an emergency coastal response plan.
One priority is to release a full account of the environmental impacts of the spill and a manifest of the ship’s cargo to the public.
Blaney said her office is continuing to ask constituents for feedback on the marine protections they want to see in place and ensure the federal government plans meet those concerns.
“All the ministers who have responsibility for our coast need to hear from our communities on this,” she said.
“I intend to make sure they do.”