Another View: Why care about derelict vessels?

MP Randall Garrison is trying to get BIll C-638 through parliament

I was disappointed when the Conservatives reneged on their vote to ban the plastic microbeads that are so rapidly accumulating in our local waters.

That is why I introduced legislation to support local volunteers by restoring federal environmental protection for the Goldstream, Colquitz, and Sooke Rivers. We must act now to protect our water, fresh and salt, if not for the fish, if not for the whales, then, ultimately, for ourselves and our fate on this planet.

I am also disappointed that the Conservatives decided not to support NDP’s Bill C-638, an act to amend the Canada Shipping Act. The intention of Bill C-638 is to give the Coast Guard the power it needs to take action before derelict vessels become problems. This is a particular problem around Vancouver Island and in my riding. This is an important issue as more and more derelict vessels are being abandoned.

Municipalities, port authorities, regional and provincial governments all want to work with the federal government on an effective system that would include fines and the recovery of costs for removal and clean up, but, of course, that is beyond the scope of what a private member’s bill can do. However, as a first step, Bill C-638 would preserve the principle that owners are responsible for the costs in cleanup and disposal of, abandoned vessels. It would not, as some Conservatives have argued, automatically transfer all those costs to the public. What the public does bear is the cost of inaction. When these derelict vessels are neglected and ignored, they eventually end up costing all of us damage to our environment and navigation and other safety hazards.

Here is the problem Bill C-638 is trying to address. Now Transport Canada is responsible for derelict vessels if, and only if, the abandoned vessel presents a navigational hazard. If such a vessel presents an immediate environmental hazard, then the Coast Guard is responsible. However, if there is no immediate navigation or environmental hazard, then no one is responsible. Leaving these derelict vessels in place means higher costs in the long term and does nothing to enhance the very important tourism industry.

Ideally, Canada would create a derelict vessel removal process similar to that of our neighbour in Washington State. In Washington, there is a system that has a fee as part of the annual vessel registration, which helps pay, ultimately, for the costs of removal of derelict vessels. It also makes a single agency responsible for administering the program.

Derelict vessels are problems at both ends of my riding. 
At the western end of my riding, the District of Sooke has been dealing with the issue of derelict vessels for years. The council members, under the leadership of its new mayor, Maja Tait, agreed that they would write to the federal government to lodge a formal complaint about the lack of action in dealing with derelict vessels in the Sooke Harbour and Sooke Basin.

An example of a challenge that just a single derelict vessel can present to local government is the tugboat Florence Filberg built for the U.S. Army in 1944. Canadian owners moored it in Sooke Harbour and then abandoned it. In 2007, it broke loose from its moorings and wedged itself on a sandbar. 
Sooke’s jurisdiction of the municipality extends only to the land between high and low watermarks, not the sandbars in the harbour. The BC government is only responsible for derelicts that have been tied up to provincial docks.

The federal Coast Guard checked and said since the boat had been cleaned up, there was no environmental hazard. Transport Canada said that since it was on a sandbar, then there was no additional navigation hazard. There it sat for more than four years; an unsightly wreck in the middle of a beautiful harbour. It was finally removed in 2011 at a cost of over $100,000. Bill C-638 would have established that the Coast Guard is the responsible agency, responsible for move and cleanup, but also for finding those owners and making sure the previous owners are held responsible for the cost of abandoning their vessel. Unfortunately our bill was defeated.

I encourage you to write to the Minister of Environment to express your concerns about the rapid dismantling of environmental protections. And please tell your family, friends, and neighbours about little things each one of us can do to make our lives a little better.

MP Randall Garrison