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Harvey Humchitt Sr., Hereditary Chief of Heiltsuk Nation, on the waterfront at the crumbling town of Namu. The Canadian Coast Guard has launched an effort to remove 25,000 litres of oily water from inside a rusting old freighter.

Mark Hume/The Globe and Mail

The provincial government has issued orders to clean up "a very dangerous situation" that exists at Namu, on British Columbia's central coast, where a long-abandoned cannery is collapsing and spilling pollutants into the ocean.

The Canadian Coast Guard has launched an operation to remove 25,000 litres of oily water from inside a rusting old freighter in the harbour, and provincial remediation efforts are expected soon on shore.

Coast Guard spokesman Dan Bate said Wednesday a team will begin work Friday on the Chilcotin Princess, a 570-tonne cargo ship listing at the Namu dock.

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The government response comes after concerns were raised about the site by the Heiltsuk First Nation and environmental groups, and following a report in The Globe and Mail that fuel tanks, batteries, asbestos and other materials were getting into the water.

Established in 1893 in a remote region about 35 kilometres south of Bella Bella, Namu once housed 400 cannery workers and their families. Built largely on docks with commercial and residential buildings connected by extensive board walks, it was a thriving fishing community until it shut down in the 1970s. The owner of the site, David Milne, of Namu Properties Ltd., couldn't be reached for immediate comment, but in the past he has denied the site posed an imminent pollution threat.

B.C.'s Environment Minister Mary Polak now clearly feels it does.

"There's huge concern that the ship that's docked there is going to sink, taking its contaminants with it, that the docks could collapse, and they are collapsing and that could see significant pollution," she said in an interview. "So really, it's just a very dangerous situation that needs to be rectified as quickly as we can."

Ms. Polak said the B.C. government ordered Mr. Milne's company to remove all contaminants from the Chilcotin Princess by last weekend, with a warning that if he didn't comply the Coast Guard would do the job and bill him costs. She said clean-up orders will also be issued concerning the buildings and docks.

"We'll be proceeding similarly on the other parts of the property based sort of on a priority threat level, in terms of the risk to the environment," Ms. Polak said. "We have to give reasonable time for the company to respond [to the orders], but we are not going to be giving them a lot of time."

Under provincial laws, the government can undertake a toxic site clean-up and then bill the owner for the work.

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Ms. Polak said the province will be responsible for remediation costs on any parts of Namu located on Crown land. It's unclear what the operation might cost, but in an interview last year, Mr. Milne estimated it could be $600,000.

"Really it's impossible to say at this stage because part of this is trying to determine just what types of chemicals are involved and the amounts," Ms. Polak said of the costs. "That will evolve over time. We really don't know at this stage."

She said government has been meeting with the Heiltsuk First Nation to discuss what might be done with the property once pollutants have been removed.

Harvey Humchitt Sr., Heiltsuk Hereditary Chief, said he's thrilled with the government action. "I am so happy," he said. "This is what we've been asking for."

Mr. Humchitt said the Heiltsuk would like to get ownership of Namu, which is adjacent to an old native village site dating back thousands of years. He said once it is cleaned, Namu could be brought back to life as a wilderness resort and marine service centre.

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