Letter from B.C. ministers calls for ‘direct and immediate action’ at Union Bay ship breaking facility

Submitted photo
Workers and vessels are seen at the Deep Water Recovery site on March 4, 2024.

A letter sent from two British Columbia ministers on Feb. 20 calls for urgent federal action to regulate and respond to concerns regarding the Deep Water Recovery ship breaking site in Union Bay.

The Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, Nathan Cullen, and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, George Hayman, urged the federal government to take more action to regulate the dismantling and recycling of vessels at the site.

“The lack of appropriate federal action has put the environment at risk and culminated in the  calls for the immediate shutdown of shipbreaking operations at the site, directed to the Prime  Minister, Premier, and all levels of government and non-governmental organizations,” according to the letter.

The provincial government is doing what it can to enforce regulations and respond to concerns in areas under its jurisdiction, the ministers write. But the federal government also has responsibilities with respect to the operations, and “we remain very concerned that Canada is not actively regulating and communicating your regulatory actions in the marine environment.”

The letter is addressed to federal ministers for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, Environment and Climate Change and Transport Canada. These ministries have responsibilities including protecting the marine environment, enforcing pollution laws and managing the safe movement of vessels.

Ashlee Gerlock lives in Union Bay, less than one kilometre from the site. She is concerned for the safety of her family, including her eight year old son.

“Why would the B.C. government allow this … company to set up a hazardous waste site next to young families and children?” she asks.

SEE ALSO: Union Bay shipbreaking neighbours worry about asbestos getting airborne

Part of the answer is that Canada, unlike some jurisdictions, has no regulations specific to ship breaking. As a result, the rules that govern Deep Water Recovery’s operations are a cross-jurisdictional hodgepodge, involving at least two provincial ministries, three federal ministries, local land-use rules and overarching responsibilities to the Indigenous land rights of the K’ómoks First Nation.

“In a multi-jurisdictional framework such as this, it is critical that municipal, provincial, and  federal agencies work together to ensure that the interests of the public, First Nations, and the  environment are protected,” according to the provincial ministers’ letter.

What are the concerns with Deep Water Recovery’s operations?

Baynes Sound is an ecologically sensitive and important area, which as of 2002 produced about half the shellfish harvested in B.C.

The site is owned by Union Bay Industries, which previously used it as a log sort. Deep Water Recovery has leased the site since 2020 for the purpose of dismantling derelict vessels.

Gerlock said she had no idea what was going on with the ships until her neighbour told her about the situation.

She said the more she learned, the more scared she was. Concerns mounted after residents noticed holes cut into the side of a vessel, known to contain asbestos, at the site.

“I go for a walk every day with my little guy and we ride our bike through the park. And I’m not going to do that anymore because we have no idea how much asbestos is on that boat,” she said.

Many residents have organized under the banner of Concerned Citizens of Baynes Sound, a group dedicated to taking action against the ship breaking operation.

The group sent a letter on February 12 to multiple government officials calling for a shut down of the operation. The letter was followed up by a news release the following day from the European organization NGO Shipbreaking Platform, which is dedicated to advocating for better environmental and labour standards in the ship breaking industry.

The K’ómoks First Nation has stated its strong opposition to the operation, calling it “​​an environmental disaster waiting to happen.” The First Nation says it shares the concerns expressed by many residents and is worried about the impacts on local shellfish and the marine environment.

And the Comox Valley Regional District says the shipbreaking facility is not operating in accordance with its land use bylaws. It has asked the BC Supreme Court to issue an injunction to stop the operations. Those proceedings are ongoing.

In its response to the lawsuit, Deep Water Recovery argues that its operations fall within permitted uses on that site.

Mark Jurisich, Deep Water Recovery’s CEO, did not respond to The Discourse’s request for comment on this article by the time of publication.

What is the government of B.C. doing? 

The provincial government says it is doing what it can to monitor and enforce the regulations within its jurisdiction. Its responsibilities include monitoring waste discharges and the removal of hazardous materials through the Environmental Management Act, as well as managing the land use and foreshore lease through the Land Act.

“We know this site is concerning to people in the area, that’s why we are actively monitoring it to ensure environmental compliance with the high standards this government has put in place,” according to an emailed statement from the ministry of Environment & Climate Change Strategy.

The ministry has ordered the company to hire an independent and qualified professional to take environmental samples at the site and submit monthly reports.

The government issued a $500 administrative penalty in October, 2023 after Deep Water Recovery failed to meet a reporting deadline. The company is in the process of appealing that penalty.

The ministry says the company has been in compliance with its environmental orders and procedures for the past several months.

Still, from the provincial government’s perspective, significant concerns with the operation remain.

“We are extremely concerned about the recent actions to remove portions of the vessel beached on the shore, and we continue to monitor the situation,” according to the ministers’ letter. “Moreover, the foreshore lease terms and conditions do not support ship dismantling, and as such we are actively pursuing actions on the site restricting further vessels from being brought onshore.”

What is the federal government responsibility?

The question of how vessels have arrived at the site in the first place is significant, particularly as it relates to federal jurisdiction.

It’s the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada who would have been responsible for authorizing the towing of vessels to the Deep Water Recovery site, according to the ministers’ letter.

This was done “without due diligence to the site readiness or capabilities, and that these two significantly sized vessels are moored and beached at this site without any clear prospect for removal.”

The Government of Canada also has overarching responsibility for the protection of marine environments, including rules relating to pollution from ship discharges. Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada have laws and regulations in these areas.

The federal government must take immediate action to ensure protection of the marine environment, and “measures must be implemented to ensure that ships are not transported to facilities that lack the capability to handle them properly and safely,” according to the letter.

What would well-regulated ship breaking look like?

Gerlock says she hopes to see a better regulated ship breaking industry in Canada. She suggests that Canada could follow the Hong Kong convention and adopt the European Union’s ship breaking regulations.

The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships was adopted by the International Maritime Organization in 2009 and aims to ensure that ship recycling did not pose any “unnecessary risk to human health and safety or to the environment.” It is scheduled to come into force in 2025. The Government of Canada says it supports the general intent of the convention, but has not ratified it.

The EU regulations follow the guidelines outlined in the Hong Kong convention to establish environmental and safety rules for the industry.

“If a ship is built on land, why can’t it be demolished on land properly in a drydock?” Gerlock asks.

The issue is bigger than moving Deep Water Recovery’s operations somewhere else, she says.

“We don’t want this operator just to close up here and then go to, you know, north of Campbell River where there is no one looking over it and polluting the waters up there,” she says.

Done well, ship breaking would provide jobs and needed economic activity for the province, Gerlock adds.

“There is obviously a need for ships to be broken and recycled, right? And if we can do it responsibly in a deep water port with full containment and trained workers… we could be leaders instead of … beaching vessels and tearing them up on the foreshore in an ecologically sensitive area.”

Madeline Dunnett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse

Local Journalism Initiative

Recent Stories

Send us your news tips and videos!