The United States Coast Guard says the US and Canadian Coast Guards will “conduct a towing evolution using a State of Alaska Emergency Towing System” on Friday afternoon off Juneau, Alaska.
The participating vessels are the Canadian Coast Guard Marine Service Vessel and Ice Strengthened Medium Navaids Tender CCGS Bartlett and the US Coast Guard cutter USGC Maple. Like the Barlett, the Maple is also a buoy tender.
In 2014, when the Russian vessel Simushir was adrift off Haida Gwaii, the towing system on the Canadian Coast Guard’s Gordon Reid was inadequate and the line snapped. A commercial tug was hired to take the Simushir into port at Prince Rupert. As Northwest Coast Energy News reported in October, 2014, the US Coast Guard deployed the Alaska Towing System to Haida Gwaii but it wasn’t used at that time despite a record of success by the US Coast Guard in towing vessels off Alaska waters.
On Monday, October 20, 2014, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Gail Shea, stood in the House of Commons during Question Period and proved she is not up for the job.
Answering questions from Opposition MPs about the incident of the Russian container ship, Simushir, which drifted dangerously close to the coast of Haida Gwaii, Shea got up and read a prepared script, a script with answers which ignored centuries of the laws and custom of the sea, as well as Canada’s own laws and treaty obligations, answers probably written by what are now known as “the kids in short pants” in the Prime Minister’s Office.
There was a time in this country when some ministers of the Crown took their responsibilities seriously. That idea that has decayed over the years and now has been gutted by the adminstration of Stephen Harper. As Ottawa pundits have noted recently, only a small handful of cabinet ministers in the Harper government have any real responsibility and only those are permitted to answer questions by themselves in the Commons. According to most Ottawa insiders, the less important ministers, like Shea, are basically told what to do by the prime minister’s office.
If the House of Commons under Harper could fall any lower, Shea’s attitude (or more likely the PMO’s attitude) on ship and coastal safety takes the Commons and ministerial responsibility to a new low—the bottom of the sea.
Nathan Cullen, NDP MP for Skeena Bulkley Valley, who represents Haida Gwaii first asked. “Mr. Speaker, on Friday, a Russian ship carrying more than 500 million litres of bunker fuel lost all power just off the coast of Haida Gwaii.The Canadian Coast Guard vessel, the Gordon Reid, was hundreds of kilometres away, and it took almost 20 hours for it to reach the drifting ship. Thankfully, favourable winds helped keep the ship from running aground, and a private American tugboat eventually towed it to shore. Is the minister comfortable with a marine safety plan that is based on a U.S. tugboat and blind luck in order to keep B.C.’s coast safe?”
“Mr. Speaker, luck had nothing to do with the situation. The Russian ship lost power outside Canadian waters in very rough weather. The private sector provides towing service to the marine industry. We are grateful that the Canadian Coast Guard was able to keep the situation under control in very difficult conditions until the tug arrived from Prince Rupert.”
Cullen tried again:
“Mr. Speaker, if the government really wanted to show its gratitude to the Canadian Coast Guard maybe it would not have cut $20 million and 300 personnel from its budget. Even after the Gordon Reid arrived, its tow cable snapped three times. The Russian ship was only about a third as big as the huge supertankers that northern gateway would bring to the very same waters off the west coast. How can Conservatives, especially B.C. Conservatives, back their government’s plan to put hundreds of oil supertankers off the B.C. coast when we do not even have the capacity to protect ourselves right now?”
Shea replied: “Mr. Speaker, this Russian ship lost power outside of Canadian waters. The Canadian Coast Guard responded and kept the situation under control, under very difficult conditions, until the tug arrived from Prince Rupert.
We as a government have committed $6.8 billion through the renewal of the Coast Guard fleet, which demonstrates our support for the safety and security of our marine industries and for our environment.”
Next to try was Liberal MP Lawrence MacAulay from Cardigan.
“Mr. Speaker, the Russian container ship that drifted off the west coast raises serious concerns about the response capability of the Canadian Coast Guard. This serious situation was only under control when a U.S. tugboat arrived.”
Again Shea read her script: “This Russian ship lost power outside Canadian waters. On the west coast, the private sector provides towing services to the marine industry.’
The final attempt by Liberal Joyce Murray, from Vancouver Quadra, also led to a scripted answer. “ this was a private towing vessel that came to tow the vessel that was in trouble.”
Shea’s answers, especially her repeated reference to “territorial waters” set off a series of “What the…?” posts on Twitter from west coast mariners and sailors, wondering if Shea knew anything about maritime law.
The first question one must ask was Shea actually not telling the whole truth to the House of Commons (which is forbidden by House rules) when she said the Simushir was outside Canadian waters? The Haida Nation, in a news release, (pdf) says the Simushir was “drifting about 12 Nautical Miles North West of Gowgaia Bay located off Moresby Island off Haida Gwaii.”
International law defines territorial waters as a belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles (22.2 km; 13.8 mi) from the baseline (usually the mean low-water mark) of a coastal state.
As Shea’s own DFO website says Canada has exercised jurisdiction over the territorial sea on its east and west coasts out to 12 nautical miles since 1970, first under the Territorial Sea and Fishing Zones Act and now under the Oceans Act. The baselines for measuring the territorial sea were originally set in 1967. While the exact position can and should be confirmed by the ship’s navigation logs and GPS track, it is clear that the container vessel could have been at one point after it lost power within Canada’s territorial waters.
Even if the Simushir wasn’t exactly within territorial waters, the ship was in what again Shea’s own DFO website calls the “contiguous zone “an area of the sea adjacent to and beyond the territorial sea. Its outer limit measures 24 nautical miles from the normal baseline zone.” In any case, the Simushir was well within what Canada says is its “exclusive economic zone” which extends 200 nautical miles from the coastal baseline.
Law of the Sea
So here is the first question about Shea’s competence.
How could she not know that the Simushir was well within Canadian jurisdiction, as defined by her own department’s website? Even if the minister hadn’t read the departmental website, wasn’t she properly briefed by DFO officials?
The second point, is that whether or not the Simushir was in actually in Canada’s territorial waters is irrelevant. Custom going back centuries, and now the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and even the Canada Shipping Act all require the master of a capable vessel to render assistance once that vessel receives a distress call or sees that another vessel is in distress.
… the master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance, on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so.
And the Canada Shipping Act requires
Every qualified person who is the master of a vessel in any waters, on receiving a signal from any source that a person, a vessel or an aircraft is in distress, shall proceed with all speed to render assistance and shall, if possible, inform the persons in distress or the sender of the signal.
The master of a vessel in Canadian waters and every qualified person who is the master of avessel in any waters shall render assistance to every person who is found at sea and in danger of being lost.
Note the phrase any waters. Not just in Canadian territorial waters as the Shea, the minister responsible for the ocean seemed to imply in her Commons answers.
That once again calls into question Shea’s fitness to be a minister of the Crown.
If she did not know about the UN conventions on the law of the sea, of which Canada is signatory, or the Canada Shipping Act, she is not up for the job as Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.
If, as the minister responsible for oceans, she knew the law and was told by the PMO to mislead the House of Commons, she is is irresponsible and MPs should ask the Speaker if she actually broke the rules of the House.
Regulation Seven of the Annex on Search and Rescue Services states
Each Contracting Government undertakes to ensure that necessary arrangements are made for distress communication and co-ordination in their area of responsibility and for the rescue of persons in distress at sea around its coasts. These arrangements shall include the establishment, operation and maintenance of such search and rescue facilities as are deemed practicable and necessary, having regard to the density of the seagoing traffic and the navigational dangers, and shall, so far as possible, provide adequate means of locating and rescuing such persons.
Note that the regulation does not say within territorial waters, but “around its coasts.”
Canada has always rendered assistance to distressed vessels not just up and down the coast but around the world. Take the case of HMCS Chartlottetown. On February 3, 2008, HMCS Chartlottetown on anti-piracy and anti-terrorist patrol in the North Arabian Sea, spotted a rusty barge with some men stranded on the deck. It turned out the men were from Pakistan and that the vessel towing the barge had sunk with all hands, leaving only the men on the barge alive. The North Arabian Sea is far out side Canadian territorial waters.
On must wonder then if the Harper Government, or at least Minister Shea is suggesting that this country ignore centuries of maritime law and custom and, in the future, pass that barge by because it was not in Canadian waters?
Perhaps buried in the next omnibus bill we will see the Harper Government restrict rescue at sea to Canadian territorial waters. Farfetched? Well that is what Minister Shea’s answer in the Commons seems to suggest.
Given the cutbacks to the Coast Guard services over the past few years, and if there are going to be large tankers, whether LNG or bitumen, on the west coast, it is an open question whether or not the Harper government has actually made those “arrangements shall include the establishment, operation and maintenance of such search and rescue facilities as are deemed practicable and necessary, having regard to the density of the seagoing traffic and the navigational dangers, and shall, so far as possible, provide adequate means of locating and rescuing such persons.”
Now comes the question of the use of the tug Barbara Foss and the two Smit tugs that later joined to tow the Simushir into Prince Rupert harbour.
It is the responibility of the owner or manager of a disabled vessel, large or small, to contract with a tug or towing service to safely take it back to port. But, and it’s a big but, the tow begins only when it is safe to do so, if there is a danger of the ship foundering, sinking or running aground, it is the obligation of all the responding vessels to render assistance, not just the tug contracted to do the job.
(There are reports that the Simushir owners chose to hire the Barbara Foss rather than the heavy duty Smit tugs available at Prince Rupert. Jonathan Whitworth, CEO of Seaspan told Gary Mason of The Globe and Mail that there are about 80 boats on the west coast, capable of heavy-duty towing, but noted that as in the case of the Simushir, those vessels may not be available when needed)
While around the Lower Mainland of BC, even a small boat that has run out of gas or has engine trouble can get commercial assistance from many service providers, the same is not true of the north coast, or at Haida Gwaii, where are no such regular services. Seapan’s Whitworth told The Globe and Mail there is often a 6,000 horsepower log hauling tug that works off Haida Gwaii. but he also noted that it would be too expensive to have a tug permanently moored on the archipelago.
That means mariners who run out of gas or have engine trouble, say on Douglas Channel, have to call Prince Rupert Coast Guard radio and request assistance either from nearby vessels or from the volunteer Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue service. RCMSAR policy says that a the rescue boat will not tow a vessel if “commercial assistance is reguarly available.” If commercial assistance is not available RCMSAR is only obligated to tow the boat as far as a “safe haven,” where the boat can tie up safely or contract for that “commercial assistance.”
Here on Douglas Channel the safe haven is usually Kitimat harbour and thus during the summer frequently either a good Samaritan vessel or RCMSAR take the disabled vessel all the way to MK Bay.
Shea’s pat answer to the Opposition questions only betrayed the fact that the east coast minister is woefully ignorant of conditions on the northern coast of British Columbia.
In the old days, a minister who screwed up so badly would be asked to resign. That never happens any more. Ministerial responsibility has sunk to the bottom of the sea.
The bigger picture question seems to be. Why, if the Harper government is so anxious to get hydrocarbons, whether bitumen or natural gas to “tide water” does it keep going out of its way to show its contempt for the people who live on Canada’s west coast?
A note for the voters of Prince Edward Island, where Shea is the member for Egmont. Consider this, if a ship gets into trouble outside the 12 mile limit, trouble that could threaten your beautiful red sandy beaches, you’re likely on your own.
A high turnout is expected Saturday for the non-binding plebiscite where residents of the District of Kitimat can, perhaps, say yes or no to the Enbridge Northern Gateway project. In some ways, it all depends on how people interpret the convoluted question.
Warren Weychasen, Kitimat’s Deputy Administrative Officer said Thursday 910 people voted during advance polls on April 2 and April 9, compared to 470 over the two days of advance voting in the 2011 municipal election.
Even who can vote has can be the matter of heated debate. Members of the Haisla Nation who live in Kitamaat Village feel strongly that they should have a voice, even though legally they live outside the municipal boundaries. “It’s our land they’re talking about,” one Haisla member, who wouldn’t give his name, said Friday as he was getting off the Village bus at City Centre.
The District also decided to allow residents of Kitimat who have been here longer than 30 days to vote, even if they are not Canadian citizens.
Another group that can’t vote, many from outside the northwest region, are living at the Rio Tinto Alcan Kitimat Modernization Camp or at smaller camps for the developing LNG projects. An informal poll of those workers at City Centre Friday showed that if camp workers had been allowed to cast a vote, many would have voted “yes,” something the opponents of Northern Gateway said they feared would overwhelm local residents.
The $6.5 billion project would see two pipelines, one carrying oil sands bitumen from Alberta to the port of Kitimat, and a second carrying a form of natural gas used to dilute the bitumen from Kitimat to Alberta. The bitumen would then be loaded onto tankers for shipment to Asia along environmentally sensitive areas of the British Columbia coast.
Northern Gateway’s campaign has concentrated on the promise of 180 permanent direct local jobs worth $17 million and more spinoff jobs for contractors and suppliers. The company also promises that the District will receive $5 million in property taxes.
Northern Gateway also emphasized its commitment to safety and the environment, saying that the National Energy Board Joint Review Panel that held two years of hearings on the project, has made many of the company’s voluntary commitments a mandatory part of the conditions for granting permission to go ahead.
The main opponent, Douglas Channel Watch, maintains that the risk from either a tanker accident or pipeline breach is too high for the small number of jobs Northern Gateway will bring to the community.
Even the question, as chosen by the District of Kitimat Council, is controversial, because it focuses on the 209 conditions placed on the project by the Joint Review Panel:
Do you support the final report recommendations of the Joint Review Panel (JRP) of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and National Energy Board, that the Enbridge Northern Gateway project be approved, subject to 209 conditions set out in Volume 2 of the JRP’s final report?
After the district council decided on that question, debate on the wording continued through several council sessions in January and February.
Public delegations, some from Douglas Channel Watch, told council that there should be a simple yes or no question.
On January 13, Donny van Dyk, Northern Gateway’s local manager for coastal aboriginal and community relations, told council that the company preferred a series of simple questions, because “We avoid an adversarial feeling plebiscite and we generate dialogue and debate amongst the plebiscite but also so we as a proponent can come away with value and create a better project.”
Council rejected a proposal for a series of simple of questions, leaving voters to decide on whether or not they supported the Joint Review recommendations. That raised the question of whether voters would make their choice on some of the provisions of the report and not the project itself.
What does it mean?
That means that even Council is unsure of what the vote will mean.
The main reason for holding the non-binding plebiscite is that it fulfills a promise from an all candidates meeting during the municipal election in November 2011, where every candidate agreed to “poll” the citizens of Kitimat on Northern Gateway.
After the new council took office, on Jan. 16, 2012, it voted to hold some sort of poll or vote to find out whether the community supports the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project. At the time, it was unclear after the vote how the survey would take place.
For the almost two years of the Joint Review Panel, the District of Kitimat did little more than act as spectators when the JRP was in town, claiming its neutrality policy precluded participation.
The District could have participated without violating the neutrality provisions, but chose not to do so. It’s now clear that decision angered the Haisla Nation, as Chief Counsellor Ellis Ross said in a letter to the media, “the District stood by and did nothing”
The debate in the District of Kitimat Council on March 3 showed that even members of council were uncertain what the vote would mean.
Councillor Corinne Scott said, “As much as we wanted to know what the feeling of the community is, all we know so far is that we’re split. What the percentage of split is, we don’t know,” said Scott.
Councillor Phil Germuth said the vote is not on the project itself, but on the Joint Review decision. “We’re asking about 209 conditions that nobody understands fully. Even Enbridge doesn’t fully understand them.”
Councillor Edwin Empinado said once the results are known, that would give the District “more bargaining power” in future dealing with company and the federal government, a sentiment echoed by Douglas Channel Watch which admits the vote will do little more than send a message to Ottawa.
It was Northern Gateway’s decision to put major resources into the campaign that raised the profile of what was originally intended as way of discovering the feeling in the small community. With the ruling from the Joint Review Panel that Northern Gateway is in the national interest and the final decision in the hands of the federal cabinet, it is equally uncertain what effect, if any, the vote will have on Ottawa.
Throughout the hearings, most people in Kitimat kept their views to themselves. When the campaign began in earnest, which in turn, triggered a fierce and often acrimonious debate on social media, mainly on the Facebook group Kitimat Politics, showing the divide in the community, although it appears from the comments that there are more opponents than supporters on the forum. The e-debate on Kitimat Politics is continuing up to the last minute Friday night and will likely get hotter once the results are known.
The adversarial feeling that van Dyk had said the company wanted to avoid was amplified in the past month when Northern Gateway began an aggressive public relations campaign with newspaper ads, glossy brochures and a door-to-door campaign by employees, some brought in from Alberta.
When news of Northern Gateway’s campaign effort spread on social media, which in turn prompted a counter campaign using the hashtag #adsforkitimat. Ads created by people from across BC were posted on Facebook and YouTube.
Douglas Channel Watch positioned itself as the David vs. the Enbridge Goliath.
On Monday, Murray Minchin of Douglas Channel Watch told Council, “When Kitimat and northern BC residents found out how many resources Enbridge was pouring into their Kitimat plebiscite advertising campaign, some of those citizens made unsolicited donations to Douglas Channel Watch. This has allowed our small group to mount an advertising campaign of our own.” Minchin said donations went up after the group launched a website adding, “People began handing us money on the street while we were putting up lawn signs. Somebody, anonymously, left a $2,000 money order in one of our member’s mailboxes.
On Thursday, Douglas Channel Watch released its advertising budget showing that the organization spent $10,970.00 on print media ads, $792.92 on supplies, and has an outstanding debt of approximately $2,600.00 in radio ads, for a total of $14,362.92. Minchin challenged Enbridge to release its own ad budget.
Ivan Giesbrecht, a spokesperson for Northern Gateway said in an e-mail to the media that the company “will discuss our advertising spending after it’s over [the plebiscite] this weekend.” Late Friday, Giesbrecht released partial figures to the Northern Sentinel, saying the company had spent $6,500 in print and $3,100 on radio advertisements during the campaign.
Those figures don’t include the glossy brochures Northern Gateway distributed in the community, sponsored posts on Facebook, or the signs the dot the streets of Kitimat.
Douglas Channel Watch did put up signs. Many were recycled from earlier protests, came from Friends of the Wild Salmon or were created by volunteers from as far away as Smithers.
Giesbrecht told the Sentinel said the company felt that the discussion in the community about which side of the vote has spent more had “become a distraction” from the real issues. But instead of a discussion on jobs and taxes, on Friday night there was a raging debate on Kitimat Politics on Facebook about the Gateway release on its spending and what was missing from those figures.
On a cold and rainy Tuesday afternoon, Northern Gateway hosted an Open House and barbeque at the Rod and Gun. Northern Gateway not only outlined the jobs they say the project would create, but emphasized how far along the company is coming in meeting BC Premier Christy Clark’s condition for a “world-class” tanker spill prevention and response system.
Janet Holder, Enbridge Vice President of Western Access described what she and Northern Gateway staff called “super tugs,” 50 metres long. “One will be tethered to the tanker, one will be following the tanker,” Holder said. “So there will be two escorts whenever that tanker is in Canadian waters. The important thing about the tugs is not just they can move that tanker if it get into difficulty. It also contains emergency response equipment right with the tankers. We’ll also have strategically placed barges with emergency response equipment along the shorelines. We will be bringing in an enormous amount of equipment before we even start operating.”
Owen McHugh, a Northern Gateway emergency manager said, “Adding these four or five tugs to the north coast provides a rescue capability that doesn’t exist in this format. So for any large commercial vessel that is traveling on our coast, this capacity to protect the waters of the north coast.” The tugs will also have firefighting capability. “The salvage capability that BC describes as ‘world-class,’ Northern Gateway is bringing that to the north coast,” McHugh said.
The plebiscite has raised tensions between the District of Kitimat and the nearby Haisla First Nation, which adamantly opposed to Northern Gateway.
Haisla chief counsellor Ellis Ross wrote a scathing letter to local media, saying, in part:
Deciding to hold a referendum at this late date is a slap in the face to all the work done by the Haisla Nation on this project. The Haisla Nation dedicated time and money toward testing Northern Gateway’s evidence and claims about safety and environmental protection, while the District stood by and did nothing.
The review process for this project has already left town, with the District taking no position on the project. Still undecided on what its views are on the project, the District now proposes to conduct a poll, instead of examining the facts in the JRP process. A poll to vote on a JRP report that we view as wrong to begin with including the flawed process itself!
On Sunday, the Haisla Senior Women were playing the Prince Rupert Thunder in finals of the annual Kitimat Open Basketball Tournament which has the aim of promoting “Cultural Warming” among everyone living in northwestern BC. At half time, members of the Haisla Nation distributed black T-shirts labelled with “No Enbridge” to spectators in the bleachers. After the Haisla won the game, 67 to 45, as Kitimat mayor Joanne Monaghan was called on to congratulate the winners, she was greeted by chants of “No Enbridge, No Enbridge.”
At Tuesday’s Open House, one of the audience asked Enbridge officials, including Janet Holder, “Why are you ignoring the Haisla?”
Donny van Dyke responded, “We are actively working to strengthen that relationship….” Then when the questioner persisted, van Dyke said, “With this question perhaps it’s better to take it offline.” Then he asked, “Are there any other questions?”
For years the District of Kitimat has been officially neutral but voting over the past years shows that council is evenly split on Enbridge issues with swing votes sometimes going one way and sometimes another on what are often four to three votes.
The federal cabinet has until mid-June, 180 days after the release of the Joint Review decision to approve the panel’s findings. It is expected by most observers that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will give the go ahead. That doesn’t mean the project will start immediately, the Joint Review findings already face about a dozen court challenges from First Nations and environmental groups.
Minchin said Saturday’s non-binding plebiscite “is not going to affect the Prime Minister’s decision per se. But it’s very important for Enbridge to squeak out a win here in Kitimat. It’s just my feeling that this proposal is associated with way too many risks for very little gain.
“If it comes back as a ‘no’ from Kitimat, it’s a clear signal back to Ottawa that they really need to rethink their priorities. For the amount of bitumen that would be coming here and exported as a raw product’ that same amount of bitumen would provide a couple of thousand direct jobs in Alberta. It seems crazy to be shipping off all our raw resources without any upgrading, it’s like raw log exports.”
Enbridge Vice President Janet Holder, speaking at the Open House said, “This is not a pie in the sky type project, it is real, we do have the shippers behind us, we have First Nations behind us.”
No matter what happens Saturday, both sides will continue to push their positions.
Holder said she would not speculate on the outcome of the plebiscite, “We’re going to communities throughout British Columbia, talking to citizens, providing the information, listening to their concerns. We’re just continuing with that outreach and we’ll continue with that outreach over the next year.”
How Kitimat voters cast their ballots depends on factors that go beyond the simple environment versus economy and jobs argument, so the outcome of Saturday’s plebiscite is far from certain.
In 2010, West Fraser’s Eurocan paper mill closed, with the loss of 500 jobs, a devastating blow to Kitimat’s economy. The Eurocan closure, the earlier closure of a Methanex plant and cutbacks at the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter and the abandonment of mills and mine across the northwest in recent years have left many people skeptical of corporate promises of jobs. Others believe the Northern Gateway project, along with proposed Liquefied Natural Gas projects in Kitimat and Prince Rupert will bring a much needed boost to a struggling economy.
Even though Kitimat has been an industrial town since the aluminum smelter was built in the 1950s, most residents fish in the Kitimat River, boat on Douglas Channel and hike or hunt in the back country, which means environmental concerns are always high on the agenda. There are fears even among some supporters of Northern Gateway of an environmental disaster.
Northern Gateway, which has admitted that its relations with northern communities started off badly in the early stages of the project, has a lot of catching up to do, no matter what the outcome of the plebiscite.
Nathan Cullen, NDP MP for Skeena Bulkley Valley and Opposition Finance Critic came to Kitimat last week to assist Douglas Channel Watch with its door-to-door campaign. “There will be PhDs written on how Enbridge blundered this,” Cullen told reporters at the time.
(Spelling of van Dyk was corrected. We regret the error)