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A portion of the coastline off Prince Rupert, B.C., in June, 2008.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The grounding of a 278-metre container ship near Prince Rupert has raised questions about the risk of oil spills on British Columbia's rugged coastline.

Prince Rupert, reputably one of the safest harbours in the world, is often discussed as an alternative oil tanker port to Kitimat, which is currently the end terminal for the proposed Enbridge Gateway pipeline, where bitumen would be loaded onto oil tankers for export.

"This could have been one of the worst spills … this could have been an historic catastrophe in the shipping industry in B.C.," said Ian McAllister, a director of Pacific Wild, an environmental organization which has been fighting to keep oil tankers off the West Coast. "The thing that immediately came to mind … is that it's one more incident on this coast where human error put a large ship on the rocks."

Mr. McAllister said it was lucky the Hanjin Geneva, which ran aground Tuesday, didn't break apart on rocks or capsize. The 65,000-gross-tonnage freighter was inbound from Shanghai when, according to a port official, it manoeuvred to avoid a small fishing boat and hit bottom.

"It ended up lodged on a sandy bar, a soft-bottomed sandy bar, at the entrance to the harbour and there it sat [overnight]," said Michael Gurney, a spokesman for the Prince Rupert Port Authority.

He said the Hanjin Geneva was not damaged and none of the crew members were injured. Five tugs were used to re-float the vessel early Wednesday morning and tow it to port.

"We believe the Prince Rupert harbour is one of the safest in the world," Mr. Gurney said. "It is one of the deepest harbours in the world and this kind of incident is extremely rare for any port – but certainly for Prince Rupert this is an extraordinary occurrence."

A team from the Transportation Safety Board was on the way to the scene Wednesday to investigate.

Prince Rupert is often discussed as an alternative oil tanker port to Kitimat, which is currently the end terminal for the proposed Enbridge Gateway pipeline, where bitumen would be loaded onto oil tankers for export. But Mr. McAllister said the Hanjin Geneva accident shows just how risky it would be to have oil tankers plying B.C.'s central coast.

"We are hearing over and over again that the safety record in Prince Rupert harbour supports that alternative proposal over the port of Kitimat," he said. "But this incident should be an alarming reminder that ships in these narrow confined areas at night, in the type of weather and currents that we have on this coast, are far from safe."

Mr. McAllister said he is glad the ship wasn't damaged, but wondered what would have happened had the Hanjin Geneva run aground in the same spot a week earlier, when the area was having the lowest tides of the year.

"In a place like Prince Rupert harbour you have a 21-foot tidal range. If it was on rocks or on a ledge, that could have been enough tidal range to turn a ship of that size right over. From our understanding they were fortunate that the tides weren't as extreme as they were a week or so ago. But it is certainly a very real reminder of what can happen," he said.

Accidents are rare in Prince Rupert harbour, but they do happen. A bulk carrier grounded in the harbour in January, 2007, and in December, 2009 a freighter touched bottom.

Mr. Gurney said both those accidents happened during extreme weather events. "Considering the hundreds of large vessels that visit the port every year, the frequency of incidents is extremely small," he said.

Joseph Spears, a maritime lawyer at Straith Litigation Chambers in West Vancouver, agreed Prince Rupert has a remarkable safety record. But Mr. Spears, an expert on marine emergency planning, said the accident could easily have been a disaster – and had it resulted in a major oil spill, B.C. wouldn't have been ready to respond.

"That vessel could have up to 3,000 tonnes of bunker fuel on it," he said. "If that was a … spill, what would that look like on a dark and stormy night?"

Mr. Spears said federal government cutbacks have weakened the ability of authorities to respond to a major marine accident on the B.C. coast.

"We need to use this as a lesson," he said. "Like right tomorrow, how can we improve things?"

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