March 28, 2006

Canadian Ferry Sinking Raises Oil Tanker Concerns

By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Plans for more oil tankers to ply the waters of Canada's Pacific coast should be dropped after last week's sinking of a ferry in the same rugged area, an environmental group said on Tuesday.

Cleanup crews are trying to contain diesel fuel leaking from the ferry Queen of the North, which hit rocks about 75 miles south of Prince Rupert, British Columbia last Wednesday. Ninety-nine people were rescued, but two passengers are missing and presumed dead.

The BC Ferries ship sank in the Inside Passage near the route that tankers would use to reach Kitimat, British Columbia, and a proposed Enbridge Inc. pipeline that would carry crude oil from Alberta's oil sands.

"B.C.'s north coast is a sensitive and highly productive ecosystem, and an oil spill here would devastate marine environments and the communities that depend on them," the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) said.

The cause of the ferry's sinking is under investigation, but media reports have raised questions about the ship's auto-pilot system and the actions of the bridge crew. The vessel strayed off course before it hit a rocky island.

The 410-foot (125-meter) vessel, which was carrying an estimated 58,500 gallons of diesel and light oil, is completely submerged in about 1,400 feet of water.

Environmental damage from the fuel slowly leaking from the vessel as been limited so far, but CPAWS said it still demonstrates the difficulty of cleaning up a spill in the relatively isolated coastal area.

"Tankers would pass right over the area where the ferry now sits," said Bruce Hill, the group's northern campaign director.

An Enbridge spokesman said it was unfair to compare modern tankers with the Queen of the North, which was built in 1969 and had a single hull and compartment design that is considered less safe by modern shipbuilding standards.

"The safety record of these tankers is extremely high. Only those that are ocean certified with double hulls would be used at the (Kitimat) terminal," Glenn Herchak said.

Tankers must travel through several waterways including the 65-mile (105-km) Douglas Channel fjord to reach Kitimat, but Herchak said they would be escorted by tugboats.

The company, which is working with PetroChina Co. Ltd., on the project, plans for six or seven tankers take oil from Kitimat each month with four to six additional ships delivering condensate to be shipped back to Alberta.

Kitimat is also being considered as the site of a liquefied natural gas terminal and Kinder Morgan Inc's Terasen unit is looking at building its own condensate pipeline with a terminal in the community.

Oil is already a politically sensitive subject in the area. There is a moratorium on offshore oil and natural gas exploration in British Columbia, and restricted access for tankers carrying crude oil down the coast from Alaska.