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Aftermath of Hanjin cargo spill shows gaps in debris-cleanup approach: Tofino mayor

Paula Freitag, a Tofino resident, examines a shipping container chunk that washed up in front of Incinerator Rock at Long Beach.

Drew Penner/The Globe and Mail

Participants in the year-long environmental cleanup of 35 cargo shipping containers that tumbled off the ship Hanjin Seattle at sea say important lessons must be learned from the massive effort, which revealed serious deficiencies in governments' approach to such spills.

It was only in November – a year after the debris began to wash ashore, scattered across Vancouver Island beaches – that the tab for the removal of Styrofoam, metal and industrial cooling components was finally settled. The wrangling over which agency was responsible for the myriad tasks involved in the cleanup has left volunteers and municipal officials scratching their heads over the bureaucracy.

Officials of the shipping company reported the spill to the Canadian Coast Guard, and Transport Canada said it did not pose an immediate hazard to vessels. That left Parks Canada, municipalities and First Nations coping with the cleanup in their jurisdictions.

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"There is no co-ordinated strategy for dealing with these kinds of debris incidents," Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne said. "The federal government has a responsibility to streamline this process."

While money from the bankrupt South Korean shipping company was sent for Parks Canada to use to pay for the entire cleanup – including Pacific Rim National Park and other areas – local officials learned in early 2017 that the agency had no way to transfer any of it to them. It took until June to get the funds rolling.

This November, BC Parks, which had jurisdiction over some of the littered beaches, agreed to pick up part the cost of the removal of the debris littered along the Vancouver Island coast around Tofino and nearby islands.

The containers were empty but included at least some refrigeration units, and Parks Canada staff, environmental organizations and small businesses removed 900 kilograms of junk from local beaches in the weeks after the spill.

Over the summer, volunteers and park staff filled an additional 200 bulk bags (holding up to a tonne of debris), according to Surfrider Pacific Rim, a shoreline protection non-profit group that mobilized much of the cleanup effort not run by government agencies.

Getting rid of all the junk costs money, and miscommunication and delays in funding that plagued the operation serve as a cautionary tale about the need for better co-ordination, say Ms. Osborne and Michelle Hall, chair of Surfrider Pacific Rim.

Parks Canada got Hanjin's creditors to release about $76,000 for the cleanup.

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In the summer, local residents made a dozen separate trips to beaches on remote islands in the area to gather debris and bring it to designated collection points. Parks Canada staff cut metal container chunks into smaller sections to be airlifted and taken away alongside the bags of Styrofoam and miscellaneous litter.

One of those islands, Flores Island, within Ahousaht First Nation territory and BC Parks jurisdiction, was not part of Parks Canada's spill-removal plan.

Ms. Hall says she used a $6,000 donation from a local tourism operator to send 18 volunteers to the island for four days in August, since Parks Canada had run out of Hanjin money.

Two days ahead of the Flores pickup, BC Parks realized Surfrider had not secured the proper authorization. The province scrambled to prepare the legally required paperwork, which outlines environmental sensitivities and the kind of insurance that groups must carry. The document was not issued until the day before, a B.C. Ministry of Environment spokesperson confirmed.

The Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District put up the cash to get the junk off Flores, hoping it could get the money back later somehow.

"Ottawa stood silent and watched this all happen," local NDP MP Gord Johns said. "Local people were shouldering all the costs."

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On Nov. 2, BC Parks authorized $6,812.50 to reimburse the regional district for the Flores pickup.

Mr. Johns, who introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling on the government to adopt a strategy to deal with ocean debris, does not believe Ottawa has learned from the Hanjin spill.

Recently, Ms. Hall travelled to the mainland to visit the warehouse of the Ocean Legacy Foundation, the non-profit that sent the container steel to recyclers. It's also looking at ways to turn the Hanjin foam into new insulation and other building materials.

Gazing up at the marine junk stacked three stories high, she was not triumphant about a successful operation.

Ms. Hall said a third-party agency to co-ordinate multijurisdiction spill response would be a good idea, noting the Hanjin cleanup proves effective environmental protection is about more than collecting money from industry when it messes up.

"It isn't just about 'polluter pays,'" she said. "It's about having a strategy in place that includes who your response, boots-on-the-ground teams are, what that response looks like when we have an emergency spill on the coast and where the funding comes from."

But ultimately, she said, ordinary Canadians bear some responsibility.

"What were the shipping containers filled with at one point? Stuff that we all want to buy, travelling from one country to the next, using fossil fuels to get here."

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