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A Canadian Coast Guard helicopter flies over a Russian container ship in rough seas off British Columbia's northern coast

On Friday, Haida leaders were to gather for the last day of a four-day annual meeting in Old Massett, B.C., with a resolution on marine safety at the top of the agenda.

Instead, they woke up to news of a cargo ship foundering in high seas off the coast of Haida Gwaii, an incident that has underscored worries about potential marine accidents and clean-up and rescue capacity along a rugged coast.

"Number one on our agenda today was [a resolution] to ban oil tankers off Haida Territory," Haida Nation president Peter Lantin said on Friday. "It's kind of ironic that we wake up before we go to have this conversation and this real-life situation is upon us."

The vessel in question is not an oil tanker. It was carrying mining material. But its difficulties – and the potential for it to run aground with fuel aboard – highlight safety risks that have dominated debate around Enbridge's $7.9-billion Northern Gateway project.

"It certainly underlines what the Premier and I have been doing with work around the five conditions," B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak said on Friday.

"We brought those to the attention of the federal government precisely because we are concerned that even with the current vessel traffic on the coast of B.C., that the response just isn't sufficient," she added.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark in 2013 announced five conditions for approving Northern Gateway.

Those conditions include a "world-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery systems."

Northern Gateway involves a twinned pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to a marine terminal in Kitimat, B.C., where oil would be loaded onto tankers for transport on a route through Douglas Channel and then on to export markets.

The ship adrift on Friday, the Simushir, is a 135-metre container vessel and had been en route from Everett, Wa., to Russia. The Victoria-based Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre learned the vessel had lost power and was adrift around 11 p.m. on Thursday.

As of Friday afternoon, the ship's commander had been taken off the vessel for medical reasons while 10 crew members remained on the ship. The vessel has fuel on board, including about 400 tonnes of bunker fuel and another 50 tonnes of diesel fuel. A ship of that size might use up to 20 tonnes a day of fuel for an ocean crossing, a Vancouver maritime consultant said on Friday.

The Canadian Coast Guard dispatched vessels and aircraft to the scene. The U.S. Coast Guard is also involved.

Coast Guard vessels were in the area to try to attach to the Simushir to slow or stop its drift, Ms. Polak said.

"At this point, the encouraging thing is the wind is blowing the ship away from the island," Ms. Polak said. At one point on Friday, the vessel had drifted within 12 nautical miles of the coast, but had since been blown back to about 15 nautical miles from land, she added.

"That isn't going to be the whole answer – but at least it is good news in the interim; it gives that tug more time to reach it," Ms. Polak said.

Work was also under way to see whether the ship could be repaired and restarted, she said.

In a statement, the Canadian Coast Guard and the Department of National Defence said the government of Canada "has taken action to halt the ship from drifting" and that the Coast Guard was taking steps to ensure an environmental response plan was in place "as required."

But a tug on the way from Prince Rupert, B.C., was not expected to reach the scene for hours, prompting sharp criticism about the lack of timely tug response.

"The failure to provide for rescue tug capacity on the North Coast puts these incredibly sensitive marine ecosystems at unacceptable risk from shipping," Living Oceans executive director Karen Wristen said in a release.

The areas where the ship is at risk of running aground are not accessible by road and can be difficult to reach by water in stormy weather, Mr. Lantin said.

"We have maybe one or two vessels on Haida Gwaii that could get there but we wouldn't risk it," he said.

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