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Anniversary of B.C. ferry sinking deadline for legal action

Cameron Hill's home overlooks the waters where the Queen of the North sank exactly two years ago tomorrow. Today, the wreck remains hidden 400 metres down, but contaminants continue to threaten the marine life that sustained his family for generations.

The second anniversary of the sinking holds legal significance: This week was the final opportunity to launch a lawsuit over the accident, and Mr. Hill's community of Hartley Bay was among the last to head to court.

"The fuel from the ferry is still leaking out and B.C. Ferries still won't show any accountability," Mr. Hill said.

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B.C. Ferries and the crew at the helm the night of the accident are now being pursued in seven court actions, including a class-action suit that represents 52 passengers and about 250 of their dependants.

In the midst of the legal challenges, the company is struggling to regain thousands of customers who have abandoned its northern routes.

"Ridership has not come back to pre-accident levels, it's soft," conceded Rob Clarke, B.C. Ferries chief financial officer. Despite an advertising campaign last year aimed at reviving summer tourism on the northern routes, they have lost more than 15,000 passengers, or about 15 per cent, annually.

This week, two new writs were filed against B.C. Ferries. One was from passenger Jean Marion Wilson, who initially signed a release from the company. The other was from the Hartley Bay native community, whose residents have been commended for their role in rescuing 99 of the 101 passengers and crew after the ship rammed nearby Gil Island.

Mr. Hill, a lifelong resident of Hartley Bay, said yesterday the decision to sue B.C. Ferries was sparked by frustration that the wreck continues to threaten the band's traditional marine harvests.

"Where the ferry went down, that's right outside of my house, a prime area to harvest," he said. "One of the saddest things for me is, I want to teach my children where I go and harvest clams and I haven't been able to show them for the last two years - so it's taking away that prime teaching time as well as from our table."

The community has had other environmental problems. Environment Canada issued a formal warning to the band in January, after a mishandled fuel transfer to the community's generators dumped as much as 15,000 litres of diesel fuel into Hartley Bay.

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That spill threatened marine life and migratory birds, the department alleged in a six-page notice to the band.

Mr. Hill said it is unfair to link the two spills. "You're comparing apples and oranges. We have taken full responsibility and have cleaned up the fuel that spilled out on Dec. 29."

Ms. Wilson and her lawyer declined comment yesterday on her court action, but a writ filed in B.C. Supreme Court alleged the retired nurse injured her ankle and foot in the accident and that she suffered post-traumatic stress.

The court document filed on her behalf mirrors the class-action suit. It claims B.C. Ferries and key members of the Queen of the North's crew were negligent on points ranging from the ship's hull design, to the use of cannabis by crew members, to the bridge crew's failure to keep a proper lookout.

A recent report by the Transportation Safety Board concluded the bridge crew were distracted by a personal conversation and didn't notice the ferry was heading directly toward Gil Island. Two passengers were never found and have been declared dead.

B.C. Ferries officials declined comment yesterday. But David Varty, a lawyer for the class-action suit, said the company has exacerbated matters with its refusal to pay his clients' medical costs.

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"Some of them have serious problems, including a suicide attempt," he said. "There have been marriages that have broken up, but B.C. Ferries doesn't seem to be taking it seriously."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More


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