Close to 35 tonnes of high-grade coal powder spilled into the waters off Roberts Bank early last Friday (Dec. 7) after a freighter collided with the Westshore Terminals coal port, raising concerns about the prospect of increased shipping along the B.C. coast.
The mishap occurred around 1 a.m. when the 180,000-tonne coal freighter Cape Apricot lost control and crashed into one of the coal conveyors, knocking 120 metres of the causeway into the ocean.
Denis Horgan, general manager of Westshore Terminals, said the salvage is going slowly because the broken causeway has to be secured and stabilized before teams can go in and remove materials. Transportation Safety Board and Port Metro Vancouver are helping with the investigation into the crash.
Kevin Washbrook, director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, is calling the incident coal’s “Enbridge moment.”
“It’s the point where this continued drive to expand exports and the argument that, ‘don’t worry, we’re the experts, we know what we’re doing,’ comes up against the realities of the world, that accidents happen,” he said.
Washbrook said people should be concerned about the coal spill occurring so close to an internationally significant bird habitat in Roberts Bank.
“Coal dust is toxic, it’s full of heavy metals. It’s harmful to humans, it’s harmful to the ocean,” he said.
However, Horgan disagrees, as the high-grade, low-sulfide coal powder that was spilled is practically inert.
“Coal is a naturally occurring mineral,” he said. “It is not toxic. It is not harmful to marine life, bird life, or human life.”
Horgan said there’s an abundance of marine life around the terminal with thriving rock reefs filled with fish and crabs.
“I guess if coal is bad for fish, nobody’s told the fish.”
Richard Swanston, a Tsawwassen resident and bird watcher, said this accident highlights the concerned of a huge oil spill in the Fraser Delta.
He said thousands of migratory birds would be affected by such a spill, such as Brant and snow geese, Western Grebe, cormorants, scoters, loons, and diving ducks.
Port Metro Vancouver vice president Duncan Wilson said the comparison isn’t accurate because the safety standards are different between oil tankers and other ships. For instance, crude oil tankers are double-hulled, and come with two marine pilots. There’s an escort tug at the bow, as well.
“A lot of redundancies are built in specifically because we recognize the concern about a liquid bulk spill,” he said.
He said coal is relatively inert and doesn’t pose a danger to marine life and that the amount of coal in the water is tiny and most of it is still sitting in the conveyor belt and can be salvaged.
Westshore wasted no time to keep the coal moving, acquiring an engineer and contractor to fabricate and install the new conveyor system and road the day of the accident.
Productivity at Westshore is expected to drop by 50 per cent during reconstruction of the second berth. Horgan said there’s no way to increase capacity on berth one since it already operates 24 hours a day, 364 days a year, shutting only for Christmas.