Canadian divers outraged Ottawa hired U.S. divers to recover oil from sunken ship off B.C. coast


Canada’s commercial diving sector is outraged that Seattle-based divers — and not qualified Canadians — were hired for the $50-million pre-Christmas cleanup of fuel oil from a U.S. military ship that sank off B.C.’s north coast in 1946.

The fact the federal government says it allowed the U.S. divers to work on the Brig.- Gen. M.G. Zalinski due to an environmental emergency — six years after Ottawa first sought proposals from industry for the cleanup — is only compounding the frustration.

“The emergency excuse is just that — an excuse to bring in personnel without using qualified Canadian divers,” Doug Elsey, executive-director of the Canadian Association of Diving Contractors, said Thursday. “Sufficient notice was given that qualified Canadian personnel were available nearly a month before the project began.”

Dutch-owned Mammoet Salvage Americas was hired as the primary contractor through a competitive process conducted by Public Works and Government Services Canada using the technical authority of the Canadian Coast Guard, said coast guard spokesman Dan Bate.

Mammoet then subcontracted Seattle’s Global Dive and Salvage under section 186 (t) of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations, which allows foreign nationals to work temporarily in Canada without work permits as a provider of emergency services.

“Both Mammoet and Global Diving Salvage were permitted to work in Canada under this provision due to the urgent nature of the services provided to complete the project,” Bate explained.

But that’s where Canada’s commercial divers cry foul, pointing out that the coast guard had known for ages about the Zalinski and had even sought tenders in 2007 on the cleanup project but did not proceed, choosing instead to do patch jobs.

“Why in the hell if they knew this thing was leaking — and everybody knew about it — did they wait six years?” asked Phil Nuytten, president and owner of Nuytco Research of North Vancouver. He noted that fuel continued to percolate up from the ship during that time and create a sheen on the waters of Grenville Channel. In 2012, the coast guard estimated the release at the equivalent of two teaspoons per day.

Other bidders as primary contractor on the project included SMIT Marine, Svitzer, DonJon Marine, T&T Salvage, and Titan Salvage.

Nuytco Research teamed up with Florida-based Titan Salvage for its bid, as occurred during the 2007 bidding process that fizzled out.

Bate said that the deteriorating condition of the Zalinski and the “risk it presented to the environment prompted the Coast Guard to take action to move quickly. To take advantage of favourable late fall weather and avoid as much winter weather as possible, a decision was made to deliver services on an urgent basis, and invoke an emergency process.”

Mammoet Salvage referred calls to its president, Bas Coppes, who could not be reached for comment. Calls to Global Dive were not returned.

Critics have charged that timing of the Zalinski cleanup had more to do with the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project and putting on an expensive exercise aimed at showing how Canada — employing foreign help, that is — can clean up oil on the remote B.C. coast.

Bate added that Mammoet and Global Dive have previous experience working in B.C., noting they teamed up in 2009 with a pollution recovery operation at Robson Bight on northeastern Vancouver Island. Nuytten said he is “gobsmacked” to hear that as the federal excuse for using Global Dive on the Zalinski, saying that Canadian divers should also have been used on the Robson Bight operation.

Just before Christmas, the Zalinski operation removed about 44 tonnes of heavy oil and 319 tonnes of oily water, which the coast guard hailed as a “significant achievement.”

The coast guard had said the Zalinski had a fuel capacity of 700 tonnes, but because ships don’t usually fill to capacity, it probably left Seattle with 650 tonnes — far more than was discovered. Divers found evidence of an overall poor condition of the structure and many of the tanks initially believed to contain oil had rusted away, Bate said.

Darrell Hawk, business manager for the Pile Drivers, Divers, Bridge, Dock and Wharf Builders, Local 2404, said he believes “the fix was in” for Mammoet and Global Dive to handle the Zalinski project.

“They were bringing the same guys, they’ve done it before,” he said. “I think the federal government was quite concerned. They couldn’t have any chance of a spill … they wanted no issues.”

Hawk hopes that controversy over the decision serves as warning to foreign companies seeking similar work in B.C. in the future.

“Let’s be aware that when you come into Canada, there are people available that can do the work and you should be hiring them.”

The cleanup involved more than 150 people, three floating fishing lodges and a Prince Rupert command centre. Representatives of at least five federal departments were also involved in the operation, along with two provincial ministries, and two First Nations.

Built in 1919, the bomb-laden Zalinski, a U.S. army transport ship, ran aground in September 1946 about 100 kilometres south of Prince Rupert in the Inside Passage. The ship was transporting a cargo of bombs, large amounts of ammunition, and spare truck parts from Seattle to Alaska. All 48 men aboard survived.

The Canadian government has not said whether it will bill the U.S. for the $50-million cost, consistent with its polluter-pay policy.



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