The owner of the MV Marathassa, the bulk grain carrier that spilled thousands of litres of bunker fuel into Vancouver's English Bay and revealed cracks in Canada's marine-response system, has been charged with 10 pollution-related offences and could face fines in the millions of dollars.
The spill occurred in April, 2015, amid a heated debate over major pipeline projects and the risks associated with the increased tanker traffic they would bring.
It set off a cleanup effort that was beset by delays and miscommunication as fuel washed up at prized Vancouver beaches, including those around Stanley Park.
After a lengthy Transport Canada investigation, the Public Prosecution Service quietly laid charges against Greece-based Alassia NewShips Management Inc. and the Marathassa last month in B.C.'s Provincial Court. The company quickly responded with an application to Federal Court to delay the case on procedural grounds.
The charges were welcomed by the City of Vancouver and environmentalists, who decried the response to the spill as slow and inadequate.
Transport Canada, in a statement, said it conducted a thorough investigation of the MV Marathassa incident and recommended charges. The agency said it couldn't comment further now that the case is before the courts.
Court records say the company and the ship have each been charged with six offences under the Canada Shipping Act, two offences under the Fisheries Act and one count each under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Convention Act.
The charges include unlawfully disposing of a substance and failure to implement an oil-pollution emergency plan.
A Public Prosecution Service spokesperson said the Canada Shipping Act offences each carry a maximum fine of $1-million and the single offence under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act carries a maximum fine of $4-million. Maximum sentences are rarely imposed.
A spokesperson for Alassia NewShips Management did not provide a response when asked for comment.
A review into the fuel spill, released in August, 2015, and conducted by a former Canadian Coast Guard assistant commissioner, found the response was delayed for nearly two hours as a result of miscommunication, technology woes and confusion over roles and responsibilities between the Coast Guard and its partners.
Transport Canada has not publicly disclosed just how much fuel was spilled, or how much of it was recovered. Shortly after the incident, the Coast Guard said about 2,700 litres of fuel had poured into the water, and crews recovered about 80 per cent within 36 hours.
The City of Vancouver issued a statement welcoming the charges.
"The city is supportive of efforts that will prevent future oil spills and make polluters responsible for their conduct," the statement said.
B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak said in a statement that it would be inappropriate to comment on the charges since the matter is before the courts. But she said she was pleased to see the federal government is taking spill response seriously, as evidenced by its November announcement involving a $1.5-billion marine-protection plan.
Gavin Smith, staff counsel at West Coast Environmental Law, said the charges were a positive development.
"We're really pleased to see the federal government enforcing its environmental statutes. This isn't always the case," he said, pointing to a lack of charges thus far involving the August, 2014, mining disaster at Mount Polley, in central B.C.
But Mr. Smith said laying charges doesn't clean up a spill or make spill risks disappear, and the prosecution should not "provide any cover" for the approval of other pipeline projects.
The first court date in the case is scheduled for April 5.
Alassia NewShips Management filed an application in Federal Court challenging the court summons outlining the charges. In its application, the company said the summons was delivered to two people who are not employees – it said one was a ship captain who has only worked for the company on two fixed-term contracts, while the other was an insurance adjuster who works for a different firm entirely.
The company argues the Provincial Court case should be stopped until the outcome of the judicial review of the summons is determined.
The lawyer who drafted the application did not return messages seeking comment Wednesday.