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Russian cargo ship adrift

A Russian cargo ship en route to Russia from Washington state that lost power on Thursday night west of the Haida Gwaii archipelago, off B.C.’s north coast, has docked in Prince Rupert. A mechanical failure left the Simushir drifting in heavy seas during the night.

The Prince Rupert Port Authority says the Simushir has been towed to the Fairview Container Terminal, and the vessel is expected to stay for 48 hours for repairs.

A U.S. tug boat arrived Saturday night to tow the disabled ship to port, after a tow line from a Canadian Coast Guard ship snapped three times and set the Simushir adrift again.

The vessel was carrying hundreds of tonnes of bunker and diesel fuel, creating concerns that it could create an environmental disaster.

Canada’s inability to rescue the drifting Russian freighter highlights the dangers of oil tanker traffic on B.C.’s coast, said Living Oceans Society executive director Karen Wristen.

She commended efforts by the Canadian Coast Guard, but said only the “fluke” of a U.S. rescue tug visiting nearby Prince Rupert allowed the disabled ship to be secured and towed safely to shore.

The Russian cargo ship Simushir was towed by the U.S. tugboat Barbara Foss, said the Canadian Forces’ Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria.

Normally, the specialized rescue tug is stationed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca under contract to Washington state in case a ship gets into trouble.

“The failure (for Canada) to provide tug capacity on the North Coast puts these incredibly sensitive marine ecosystems at unacceptable risk from shipping,” said Wristen. “The Simushir was following the same course intended for oil tankers leaving the proposed Kitimat terminal of the Northern Gateway project.”

Enbridge’s proposed $7.9-billion Northern Gateway oil pipeline — which has conditional federal government approval — would bring bitumen from the Alberta oilsands to Kitimat for shipment overseas to Asia. More than 200 tankers would traverse the Douglas Channel and exit into Hecate Strait, and travel around the north or south end of Haida Gwaii.

Enbridge spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht said that Northern Gateway marine safety measures are designed to avoid a scenario such as this one “altogether.”

Operation safety limits that must be adhered to by vessels shipping Northern Gateway oil means that tankers will not arrive or depart — and therefore be near shore — during storms, noted Giesbrecht.

All tankers will also have a close tug escort to open water, he added. A new class of escort tugs is being designed, each with more than twice the power of the Barbara Foss.

“These super tugs can respond immediately to an emergency because they will carry spill response and firefighting equipment,” said Giesbrecht.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea issued a statement Sunday thanking the Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian Armed Forces for their “quick” response.

She also thanked the U.S. for its help, and said the outcome showed it was “possible to prepare for the unanticipated.”

Richmond-Steveston B.C. Liberal MLA John Yap applauded the emergency response when the U.S. tug arrived. “Ecofearmongers can stand down,” he said on Twitter.

The Simushir lost power late Thursday off of Haida Gwaii, also know as the Queen Charlotte Islands, in rough weather. The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Gordon Reid got a line on the freighter but the tether kept breaking.

While connected to the Gordon Reid, the freighter had been pulled slowly at a speed of about one knot away from Haida Gwaii, enough so that the U.S. tug reached the Simushir before there was a risk of grounding.

“It was luck,” Peter Lantin, president of the Haida Nation, said Sunday.

The Haida Nation, like other coastal First Nations, are vigorously opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Lantin said the scale of risk for oil tankers compared to the Russian freighter is enormous.

There have been warnings that B.C. is not prepared to deal with ship incidents requiring tug rescue.

A B.C. government-commissioned study released last year found a lack of an escort tug system north of Vancouver was a gap in the marine safety system.

The study noted there are no rescue tugs stationed in B.C., with the closest tug in Washington state.

Canadian Forces’ Joint Rescue Co-Ordination Centre spokeswoman acting Sub-Lt. Melissa Kia said the winds and seas had calmed significantly and the tug and freighter could reach Prince Rupert Port later Sunday. The Barbara Foss was pulling at seven knots.

A mechanical failure left the Simushir drifting in heavy seas Thursday night, sparking fears it could run aground and spill hundreds of tonnes of fuel along the pristine shores of Haida Gwaii.