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Salvage tug boats spray water onto the container ship Zim Kingston after the crew were evacuated due to a fire on board, in Victoria, B.C., on Oct. 24, 2021.KEVIN LIGHT/Reuters

The Canadian Coast Guard now says that more than 100 shipping containers, at least two of them carrying hazardous chemicals, fell off a cargo ship that later caught fire, and marine experts are concerned fish and even whales could suffer from chemical burning as a result of the accident.

Fire broke out aboard the 13-year-old MV Zim Kingston last weekend and officials initially estimated that two containers carrying a chemical used in mining were the source of the fire, while about 40 containers had gone overboard. But on Wednesday, the coast guard said the number of containers that fell from the vessel is now calculated at more than 100.

“Right now, our best count is 109. This is still an ongoing challenge, of course, and it could change because there’s a possibility that some were burned up in the fire that we’re not aware of yet,” said Mariah McCooey, deputy federal incident commander with the coast guard.

Three containers were washed up at Cape Scott, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, early Wednesday afternoon. The others are still adrift and some may have sunk. The containers were carrying Christmas decorations, sofas, poker tables, metal car parts, clothing, toys, yoga mats, stand-up paddle boards, industrial parts and other everyday items.

Fires in cargo ship off B.C. coast may take days to put out: coast guard

Officials said the fires, which broke out on Saturday, had been under control, and noted the number and type of containers carrying dangerous goods has not changed since the original reporting. At least two of those containers had been carrying potassium amyl xanthate, a chemical used in mining.

Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans Society, a B.C.-based marine conservation organization, said the compound is “extremely toxic to aquatic life.”

She said while such effects would depend on the animals’ exposure to the chemical, that in turn will be affected by where the containers ultimately break open, “and the most likely place for that to happen is in the near-shore environment,” where leaching could cause direct burning and irritation in aquatic life such as fish and whales.

Jay Cullen, professor and director at University of Victoria’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, concurred that the harm to marine organisms depends on the concentration of potassium amyl xanthate that may leak from the missing containers.

“Undoubtedly, that chemical does pose a risk to fish and marine mammals, depending on where it ends up, and I guess that’s the question that we can’t really answer right now,” he said in an interview.

He noted that other contents of the cargo containers, much of it likely made of plastics, may also contribute to ocean pollution and could present a “significant risk” to ship navigation in the region.

Local First Nations leaders are also expressing concerns about the MV Zim Kingston accident. Pacheedaht First Nation (PFN) Chief Councillor Jeff Jones said he is worried that there is currently no marine safety resource in the Port Renfrew area to respond to such incidents.

“The PFN has immediate concerns about the contents of the lost containers currently floating off the west coast of Vancouver Island that have spilled from the MV Zim Kingston container ship, and the fire burning on the ship and what the potential impacts on marine and human life could be,” he said in a statement.

“Sadly, this unfortunate incident highlights the need for a marine safety centre to be built now.”

Zachary Scher, provincial incident commander for the B.C. Ministry of Environment, said air-quality monitoring has not found any contaminants of concern at levels that put public health at risk. He added potassium amyl xanthate is water-soluble and not expected to persist in the environment.

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