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When a barge named ATL 2701 makes its ungainly way into the Port of Toronto early next week, it is unlikely to make any more waves than the average freighter would.

Had the 82-metre vessel kept its original name, Irving Whale, it might be a different story. To the casual eye, the ATL 2701 will carry nothing more than a massive set of pipes and racks bound for the much-debated Portlands Energy Centre, now under construction on the city's east-end waterfront.

But, to environmentalists who oppose the power plant, the renamed barge will carry a darkly ironic cargo of bad memories from one of Canada's most notorious nautical disasters: the Irving Whale's 1970 sinking in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Prince Edward Island, taking 4,200 tonnes of fuel oil down with it. About 1,100 tonnes of oil spilled into the ocean, including 5,700 kilograms of oil laced with PCBs.

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"Well, it's consistent," chuckled Peter Tabuns, the NDP member of the legislature for Toronto-Danforth, where the power plant's most vociferous detractors live. "It's one bad environmental decision and happenstance after another."

A $42-million recovery effort, funded mostly by the federal government, brought the Irving Whale and about one-quarter of its toxic cargo back from its watery grave in 1996; the rest of the oil was swallowed by the sea.

The vessel was refurbished, renamed and sent back into service by Atlantic Towing Ltd., on behalf of its owner, J. D. Irving Ltd., in 2001.

While they're all for recycling, those who feel the natural-gas-powered Portlands Energy Centre is a bad environmental move see the barge as a bit player in a sorry drama that will further pollute Toronto's air.

"It is a pretty big irony that one of the worst environmental disasters is delivering equipment for what people in my community consider to be another environmental disaster," Paula Fletcher, city councillor for Ward 30 (Toronto-Danforth), said yesterday. "The oil-spill ship is now delivering equipment for the gas-fired plant."

Ted Gruetzner, spokesman for the power plant, said the former Irving Whale is expected to arrive from Dartmouth early next week, carrying three massive pipes each five storeys high and weighing 272,000 kilograms.

It will be the second of two such shipments, the first of which, consisting of two pipes, was to arrive this morning on a barge from Hamilton.

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"It's an interesting twist," Mr. Gruetzner said of the ATL 2701's dubious past, but "that's sort of ancient history for the barge, and it's not carrying its former cargo.

"And this [gas-powered plant]is actually cleaner for the environment than a lot of alternative sources of power."

The less-than-clean story of the Irving Whale began in 1966, when it was built for J. D. Irving in Saint John with eight tanks for hauling oil.

It sank, loaded with 4,200 tons of bunker C heavy fuel oil, during a storm on Sept. 7, 1970, en route from Halifax to Bathurst, N.B.

Oil fouled about 80 kilometres of shoreline on the nearby Magdalen Islands and leaked into the Atlantic Ocean from the wreck, albeit slowly after the initial sinking, over the next 26 years, as officials worked on a salvage plan.

Meanwhile, the presence of more-toxic PCB-laden oil within the barge's cargo heating system added urgency and complexity to the recovery that followed on July 30, 1996.

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The federal government sued J. D. Irving Ltd. in an effort to recover the $42.4-million it spent on the salvage effort. In 2000, Ottawa settled out of court for a $5-million contribution from Irving, which had argued that the recovery mission was reckless.

Opponents of the Toronto power plant, who lost their battle to stop the project, "still think it's going to be threatening air quality" in the city, Mr. Tabuns said. They will see the Irving Whale's part in it as "fitting and consistent with everything that's happened here."

The 550-megawatt plant is expected to begin operating next June.

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