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Ships work to control a fire on board the MV Zim Kingston about eight kilometres from the shore in Victoria, B.C., Oct. 24, 2021.CHAD HIPOLITO/Handout

The MV Zim Kingston, bound for the Port of Vancouver, arrived last Thursday just outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca after crossing the Pacific laden with goods picked up in China and South Korea. It carried 2,000 containers – a few with hazardous chemicals – when it slowed to an idle, tracing the pattern of the number four in a growing October storm in the open waters of the Strait.

Marine tracking data show the 260-metre-long cargo ship continued that pattern for the next 22 hours. At some point, a wave likely caught the ship broadside. It listed hard – 35 degrees to one side – and at least 109 containers ripped loose, crashing overboard. At least two of them carried chemicals used in mining.

Why the Zim Kingston’s crew chose to ride out the tempest for so long remains an open question. But the consequences for the coast are now being felt as those containers and their spilled contents wash up along the shores of Vancouver Island, including the pristine white beaches of Cape Scott Provincial Park at the northern tip of the island this week.

The containers were packed with consumer goods, such as refrigerators, engine parts, yoga mats and toys, but also highly hazardous materials that could still be riding the waves further north. But that was just the start: The ship then made its way to an emergency anchorage just off the city of Victoria. That’s when a fire was detected on board among the damaged containers.

Concerns about marine safety in the midst of growing commercial vessel traffic have been debated for years in British Columbia because of the increased number of oil tankers that will result from the completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. Ottawa has committed to increase ocean-protection resources in response to criticism of the project.

The Zim Kingston’s misfortunes, however, highlight the risks that are present in the everyday shipping of goods along the coast.

The 13-year-old Malta-flagged vessel was en route to the Port of Vancouver, but the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority cannot explain why the ship did not request a place to drop anchor sooner. There were 10 anchorages in the Port of Vancouver and another 24 in the Southern Gulf Islands available for use at the time. The ship’s owners have declined to be interviewed.

But while the ship idled in the open Pacific, just hours away from safe harbour, meteorologists were warning that a significant storm was building offshore – a rare “cyclone bomb.”

Danaos Shipping Co., the ship’s owner, said in a statement that it immediately notified the local port authorities to warn other vessels in the area once its cargo was lost. But the investigation of the incident was postponed until daylight when the crew could assess their losses. They would learn that at least two of the missing containers contained hazardous materials – potassium amyl xanthate and thiourea dioxide.

Just before midnight on Oct. 21, the storm-damaged ship broke its holding pattern, heading for an emergency anchorage at Constance Bank, about eight kilometres offshore of Victoria. While the waters in the strait are calmer, the remaining stacks of containers had sustained damage.

On Saturday the 23rd, the ship’s officers radioed the Canadian Coast Guard in Victoria to ask for help extinguishing a fire that had started in two containers on board the vessel.

At 11 a.m., when the Canadian Coast Guard responded, at least 10 containers were in flames, including those with with the potassium amyl xanthate, a hazardous material widely used in mineral processing. The hazardous material required caution, and first responders could not douse the flames directly with water. The first vessel that arrived with firefighting capacity was the Firebrand, out of the naval base at Esquimalt. The Coast Guard’s Atlantic tug arrived at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning.

The emergency responders – including the officers who refused an order from the Coast Guard to abandon ship – are credited with preventing a large-scale environmental disaster. But it was mitigated in part by the good fortune that two privately owned tugs with firefighting capacity just happened to be nearby.

Some of the new resources promised by the federal government include an offshore supply vessel that is expected to be in service in 2022, which will have firefighting capacity and could be used in response to similar incidents in the future. But on Saturday, the key firefighting response came from the Maersk Tender and ­Maersk Trader, which were at dock at Victoria’s Ogden Point, having just returned from a non-profit expedition to test a new trash-collecting system in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“It was very fortunate they happened to be in the harbour, I don’t know where the next large firefighting vessel is,” said Ian Robertson, CEO of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority.

The two tugs were dispatched to help manage the fire that sent massive plumes of smoke up in plain sight of the city. It is a reminder, Mr. Robertson said, that the coast needs more resources to protect the marine environment. “We do need a significant firefighting capacity here on the West Coast.”

Peter Lahay, Canadian co-ordinator for the marine branch of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, agrees that this could have been worse. Mr. Lahay was tracking the ship’s strange holding pattern in the storm, wondering why the vessel was not offered safe harbour.

Sri Lanka is still dealing with an environmental disaster after a chemical cargo ship caught fire off its coast in May, he noted.

“We got off so lucky in this,” Mr. Lahay said, adding that the incident is a troubling example of poor regulatory oversight of the country’s maritime trade. He is calling on the federal Transportation Safety Board to investigate.

“That ship was left running slow – between 2.4 to five knots – out in that swell, the weather bomb was coming in and it was rough,” he said. “We’re looking for trouble here if we think we can leave ships out there, particularly in the winter.”

He said Canada has an obligation to provide safe harbour for ships coming into port. “The entire prosperity of this nation relies on shipping and in exchange for that, we should be investing to ensure we’re regulating the industry safely.”

Robert Lewis-Manning, president of the Chamber of Shipping, a Canadian marine transportation industry association, said this is a growing challenge that Canada needs to manage better. “This wasn’t the only ship out there loitering, waiting for somewhere to go. But the U.S. Coast Guard was reaching out, it invited ships into the Strait of Juan de Fuca as that storm built.”

Mr. Lewis-Manning said it’s unclear why the Zim Kingston opted to wait, but for the past three years, the busy ports of Seattle and Vancouver have had increasing challenges with scheduling. “At the heart of the issue, we need to talk about whether Canada has an obligation to help mitigate risk when that risk is unusual.”

Canadian and U.S. Coast Guard officials are still tracking the movement of containers that broke free, and using information from helicopter and fixed-wing flights, and reports from commercial vessels.

The ship fire burned for a week before it was declared to be out on Friday. Mariah McCooey, deputy federal incident commander with the Canadian Coast Guard, said earlier this week that the situation onboard was “very dangerous and difficult” in part because of heavy weather, and also because of the presence of hazardous materials.

She said the initial cause of the fire remains unknown and will be determined in the coming days.

Marine experts remain concerned about the impact of this incident. Juan Jose Alava, a marine eco-toxicologist and conservation biologist at the University of British Columbia, said the impact of 52 tonnes of potassium amyl xanthate on board the ship, and the containers lost overboard, can be catastrophic.

“We should not assume that the dilution of this chemical in saltwater will reduce potential health effects in the short term; however, questions linger on the long-term effects or impacts on marine life and First Nations’ coastal communities heavily depending on seafoods,” Dr. Alava wrote in an e-mail.

Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans Society, a B.C.-based marine conservation organization, said Wednesday that debris from the ship could wash up in Scott Islands, a marine National Wildlife Area north of Vancouver Island, which supports the highest concentration of breeding seabirds on Canada’s Pacific coast.

“Seabirds have a tendency to pick up brightly coloured plastics, mistaking them for high-value proteins, and to preferentially feed those to their chicks. Bottle caps and other small, plastic pieces such as may be among the toys in the cargo are frequently found within the carcass of dead chicks,” she wrote in an eemail.

The cleanup continues.

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