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The tug boat Barbara Foss pulls the disabled Russian cargo ship Simushir off the B.C. coast. on Sunday, Oct.19, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Maritime Forces PacificHO-Maritime Forces Pacific/The Canadian Press

When a Russian cargo ship lost power and dead-drifted off Haida Gwaii for two days, it raised concerns because proposed oil and gas development could soon increase tanker traffic.

Some saw the Simushir incident as proof that British Columbia is not capable of providing emergency services to current marine traffic, let alone serving the additional 600 crude carriers that will start plying coastal waters if two proposed oil pipelines are built.

But there is strong disagreement from a marine expert, Jonathan Whitworth – CEO of Seaspan, a Vancouver-based association of companies involved in marine transportation and ship building – who says an adequate safety system is in place now and emergency tug services will get better if development takes place.

The debate is ongoing, and heated. Murray Minchin of Douglas Channel Watch, a non-profit that is concerned about increased tanker traffic on the north coast, believes the Simushir was a near-miss that should serve as a warning.

"We had to call on a U.S. tug to rescue that vessel and it took over 20 hours to get there," he said.

The Alaska-based tug, Barbara Foss, came out of Prince Rupert to rescue the 134-metre Simushir after the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Gordon Reid failed to do so, breaking three tow lines in heavy seas.

Mr. Minchin said the freighter could easily have gone aground in the sensitive Haida Gwaii archipelago, raising fears about what might have happened had a large crude carrier been in trouble instead. The supertankers used in oil transport are up to three times the size of the Simushir.

"We just dodged such a bullet here," Mr. Minchin said.

"It's only by the grace of a light southeast wind that the Simushir didn't go on the rocks [before the tug got there]. If that was an onshore wind that had been blowing, that would have been a slam-dunk wreck."

Mr. Minchin said if the Enbridge Northern Gateway project gets approved, oil tankers will be travelling past Haida Gwaii on a daily basis.

"There will be two supertankers a day in those waters … so the odds [of an accident] are really extreme," he said.

But Mr. Whitworth said it was just bad luck the Simushir got in trouble where it did, when it did, without any ocean-going tugs nearby.

"We certainly have large tugs operating in Haida Gwaii on log barges, for example. So it will be a 6,000-horsepower tug that would [typically] be in that area. It just so happened that over the weekend our two biggest tugs which transit that area were down south," Mr. Whitworth said.

After the Simushir incident, there were calls to have rescue tugs stationed at Haida Gwaii and elsewhere on the coast. But Mr. Whitworth doesn't think that is necessary, or affordable.

"Yes, if there had been a tug stationed in Haida Gwaii then it could have responded possibly quicker. But who's going to pay for that?" he said. "Surprisingly from a tug owner it's not going to be [my view] that there should be a tug every 50 metres up the coast."

Mr. Whitworth said there are about 80 boats between Alaska and Vancouver that could have towed the Simushir to safety. But those are working vessels that are constantly in motion, and it was just a fluke none were nearby when the Russian vessel needed help.

"Ships have been going up and down this coast like this for hundreds of years. And how many vessels have you heard of that have run aground on Haida Gwaii?" he asked, saying there are none in recent memory.

Mr. Whitworth said if oil pipelines or LNG facilities are built in B.C., it will lead to increased tanker traffic, but there will also be an increase in the number of big tugs. The Northern Gateway project, which has won conditional approval, includes a proposal to provide new ocean-going tugs with deep keels and powerful directional drives to escort all tankers.

"That's actually quite ironic because if there had been oil tankers transiting the north coast, there would have been larger escort-type tugs available for use," he said. "If there are more tug boats in the area, you certainly are going to increase the response time and decrease any probability of incidents."

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