As an American tugboat brought a Russian cargo ship into port in Prince Rupert Monday, it left a wash of relief in its wake.

But for those worried about marine safety along British Columbia’s coast, the rescue of the stranded Simushir highlighted gaps in Canada’s ability to respond to marine disasters and brought renewed attention to Ottawa’s response to B.C.’s “five conditions,” released in 2012 as prerequisites for the province’s approval of heavy oil pipelines. Those conditions include a “world-leading” marine spill response prevention and recovery system.

A federal spokesman responded to those heightened concerns by defending the government’s record on marine spills and tanker safety while stating future improvements are forthcoming.

“I would like to note that Canada already has a strong tanker safety system,” Frank Stanek said in an e-mailed response. “Improving it will ensure that the risks of an oil spill at sea are prevented, that we’re quick to act if one does happen and that polluter pays. This incident demonstrates that although Canada hasn’t had a major spill in thirty years, the best way to minimize the risk of a spill is a strong prevention regime, and strict oversight of safety regulations that are in place.”

He said that the federal government is upgrading marine navigation systems with new weather buoys and navigation beacons, providing support for aboriginal communities to prepare and respond to spills and adopting a new Coast Guard incident command system that will speed up the agency’s response to spills.

Last Tuesday, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt announced up to $20-million in funding to improve navigational aids in area around the proposed terminus of the Northern Gateway pipeline. And during a speech to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce on Friday, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford said Ottawa would release new pipeline shipping rules this fall to address environmental concerns.

In December, a federal panel established as part of the government’s effort to improve tanker safety identified major gaps in the country’s preparedness for marine spills. However, the panel also deemed the waters off Haida Gwaii as a being at a “low” or “very low” risk of marine spills. It made no mention of how that risk level might increase if the Northern Gateway tanker port is established.

B.C. is engulfed in a debate over increased tanker traffic associated with two major industrial proposals: Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, which would ship oil from Alberta to Kitimat on the B.C. northern coast, and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion project, which would more than double the capacity of an existing pipeline that moves oil between Alberta and the Lower Mainland.

Together, the two projects would result in more than 600 tankers a year joining those that already ply West Coast waters. Potential liquefied natural gas projects could add more vessels to the tally.

That was the backdrop when the Simushir, a bulk carrier travelling from Everett, Wash., to Russia, lost power off the west coast of Haida Gwaii Thursday night.

The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Gordon Reid arrived more than 20 hours after the Simushir lost power. The Coast Guard vessel’s tow line broke three times, though the Reid did successfully tow the cargo ship away from Haida Gwaii. An American tug that happened to be in Prince Rupert at the time arrived later and on Sunday was towing the ship to Prince Rupert.

“It was luck,” Peter Lantin, president of the Haida Nation, said Sunday of the crisis averted.

Industry proponents say safeguards proposed as part of their projects – including tug escorts to take tankers to open water – would have prevented such an incident from taking place and allowed authorities to get help more quickly to the stricken ship.

“Northern Gateway’s marine safety measures are designed to avoid a scenario such as this one altogether,” Enbridge spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht said Sunday in an e-mail.

Operating limits would prevent tankers from travelling to or from near-shore areas in rough weather, Mr. Giesbrecht said.

As well, loaded Northern Gateway tankers would be escorted by two “super tugs” equipped with spill response and firefighting equipment.

The proponents of major projects that involve tankers have all committed to escort tugs, Stephen Brown, president of the Chamber of Shipping of B.C., said on Sunday.

If some or all of those projects are developed, “you will actually have much more maritime rescue and assistance capability than we enjoy today,” Mr. Brown said.

Published Sunday, Oct. 19 2014, 8:06 AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Oct. 20 2014, 8:30 AM EDT