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Volunteers aboard the HMCS Annapolis remove metal to be sold for scrap as the ship sits in Long Bay off of Gambier Island near Vancouver July 23, 2011 before being turned into a dive wreck.John Lehmann

HMCS Annapolis was a durable destroyer escort in the Canadian navy at a time when Canada was known as a peacekeeper. It was part of an oil-and-arms embargo for almost a month in 1994 after a military coup in Haiti. Otherwise, its public military record does not mention any hot spots. It was de-commissioned in 1996, after travelling 1.4-million kilometres over 32 years.

But now the Annapolis is in the middle of a vicious battle unlike anything it ever experienced on the high seas.

The Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia plans to sink the warship in an idyllic bay close to Vancouver, creating an easily accessible opportunity for recreational scuba divers and a new home for possibly more than 100 marine species.

Residents of the area near the bay and environmentalists are up in arms. They are troubled by the possible release of toxins and increase in boat traffic that could turn the secluded waters into a busy, commercial dive site. They are upset with both the federal and provincial governments, which raised concerns about the project and then, without explanation, encouraged the reef society to move ahead with it.

The rhetoric of the warring factions rivals some of the most acrimonious confrontations in B.C. in recent years.

A recent e-mail from Howard Robins of the Artificial Reef Society to Halkett Bay resident Nick Majendie calls information about the effects of sinking the ship on a Save Halkett Bay website and in the media "the most outrageous untruths" and says data from the society have been ignored in the debate. He disputes Mr. Majendie's statements about the approval process, the environmental effects of lead paint, the presence of PCBs on the ship and danger to killer whales. He accuses the homeowners around the bay of hypocrisy for suggesting that the ship be sunk elsewhere when they consider it unsafe to sink in the bay.

Four days later, Mr. Majendie replied that information backing his statements has been presented to the B.C. government. "Anyone who opposes you is not necessarily evil, hypocritical, mendacious or selfish," he said.

Amid the heated debate, the society is working to rid the ship of anything that could contaminate the waters of the bay.

The Clean-up

About 60 volunteers showed up in late July to help strip the vessel in preparation for sinking, an event they called Extraction Weekend. The 113-metre warship with a helijet landing pad is moored just outside Halkett Bay on Gambier Island. It is to be placed in 30 metres of water in Halkett Bay Provincial Marine Park.

The sunken vessel would rest on a seabed damaged by debris from log-booms. Rock fish, shrimp, ling cod, scallops, wolf eels, octopus, crabs and dozens more sea creatures are expected to find it a welcoming environment. The waters already support a wide diversity of fin fish, shell fish and crustaceans.

Divers from the Artificial Reef Society have been preparing the vessel for almost three years. They hauled out cabinets, ducts, piping, wires and motors. They stockpiled copper, brass, steel and aluminum that could be resold, and collected anything else that could be recycled. They have removed hatches and doors, cleared access holes and taken away whatever might float or hook a diver.

On Extraction Weekend, Robyn Schooley, a slight, 30-year-old novice diver, lifted drawers and swept away insulation. "It's not the most glamorous job," Ms. Schooley said later. But she said she feels good about doing something she believes would benefit the environment, maintain a piece of Canadian maritime history and provide opportunities for divers.

Ms. Schooley is thrilled with everything about the sport. She compares diving to what she imagines flying through outer space would be like. "You are in an environment you should not be in," she said, recalling an octopus that came right up to her once. "It's just such a cool thing."

She acknowledged that views differ on the environmental impact of artificial reefs. The people who are sinking the Annapolis care immensely about the environment, she said. "They would not put anything down there if it was going to hurt … it is being done to help, not hinder."

But is it enough?

For the environmentalists, the list of potential dangers is sufficient to cast a pall over the project. Toxic paints and fuels, PCBs, asbestos, oils, solvents. Can a warship ever be completely clean? The Georgia Strait Alliance, which has long opposed dumping ships in the sea, urges caution, especially in the absence of studies to show the ship would be toxin-free. Evidence of artificial reefs' benefits to the marine environment are questionable, while evidence of long-term harm is not refuted by long-term studies, the Alliance says.

"Just because things grow on it and they use the ship as a place to live does not mean it is the best environmental option," said the Alliance's administrative director, Cathy Booler.

Save Halkett Bay spokesman Gary McDonald would like to see a thorough environmental assessment review with public consultation that looks at potential effects, mitigating measures, alternative sites and the impact on the social and physical environment. "How can the government be thinking about allowing a group to basically build a 30- by 100-metre-long building underwater without actually considering the impacts," Mr. McDonald said. The group has threatened legal action if a proper review is not conducted.

Mr. Robins of the Artificial Reef Society said the group has done seven similar projects in B.C. and knows what it is doing. "We do not want to do anything that harms the environment," he said.

The navy removed all the nasty materials – the PCB-laden wiring, mercury lead – before releasing Annapolis, he said. Also, the reef society must meet federal standards for cleaning up contaminants before receiving authorization to sink the ship. "The government is not going to make these decisions without hearing both sides and coming to the realization there is a truer side and then there is a fabricated side," he said.

Mr. Robins attributes opposition to homeowners who use the marine park for swimming and kayaking not wanting more people there. "It's NIMBYism [not-in-my-backyard] masking over a whole bunch of fears and concerns that they cannot substantiate," Mr. Robins said.

Scuttling Annapolis

The massive ship will sink in two to three minutes. In the first 45 seconds or so, the ship remains in position with water pouring through holes in its hull. Then it drops. The sediment settles down within an hour. "It's an amazing thing to see," Mr. Robins said. "A ship disappearing before your eyes."

Reef society's first attempt hit snags

The Artificial Reef Society stumbled in its initial attempt to win federal approval for sinking the HMCS Annapolis in Halkett Bay. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, in a preliminary report in December, 2009, recommended the project be relocated.

The sunken vessel would cover 1,470 square metres of shallow, near-shore, fine-sediment seabed. The new fish habitat it would create would be similar to those in the vicinity but would not compensate for losing the uncommon fine-sediment seabed under the ship or loss of fish habitat diversity, biologist Bruce Clark wrote.

The next year, a BC Parks manager concluded the project did not fit in with the master plan for the Halkett Bay Provincial Marine Park. An amendment to the plan would be required, parks manager Jennifer McGuire stated in a Nov. 4, 2010, letter to the artificial reef society. However, a review of the master plan was not a top priority within the planning office and would require a reassignment of resources. The federal fisheries office closed the file after BC Parks turned down the project.

But in early March, then-environment minister Murray Coell reinvigorated the project with a commitment to accept ownership of the warship once federal authorization for the project had been obtained and the ship has been sunk. Terry Lake, Mr. Coell's successor as environment minister, re-affirmed the province's support in June.

With the project back on track, the artificial reef society went once again to Environment Canada for authorization to sink the ship. Unlike previous sinking of warships in B.C., Ottawa decided this time to consider the project under rules for altering marine habitat rather than regulations for dumping at sea. The ship will be required to meet federal clean-up standards for pollutants and contaminants but a full environment assessment will not be undertaken.

A preliminary inspection in late June identified problems. A second inspection will be done possibly in late summer. Once the ship passes inspection, Environment Canada and Transport Canada will submit their opinion to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which has final authority on the project.