Union Bay shipbreaking neighbours worry about asbestos getting airborne


People living in Union Bay are worried that a shipbreaking facility may not be following all its environmental requirements as it pulls apart a ship containing asbestos.

The controversial business has been in the crosshairs of a group of people in the community since it opened in 2020.

When neighbour Ashlee Gerlock heard the shipbreaking facility in Union Bay was cutting into the NOAAS Miller Freeman, she was worried.

A recent email from her MLA’s office confirms the ship contains asbestos. The ship also has lead in the paint.

“We are immediately adjacent to the site, and I’m worried about my family, and I’m worried about my child,” said Gerlock, who has an eight-year-old son.

“I’ve asked the Regional District to put up signs at the park that he plays at. Signs that say enter at your own risk so children do not get sick.”

A group opposed to Deep Water Recovery’s shipbreaking because of those health and environmental concerns has been keeping tabs on the company’s operations, in part, by flying a drone overhead.

The recent footage shows the Miller Freeman on the foreshore. The Canadian Coast Guard is the lead agency until it’s moved above the high tide line.

The Coast Guard says it’s now above the high tide line, while the province says it’s not.

Neighbours say this is part of the problem and that the different government bodies aren’t working together even though they say they are.

The videos also show a front portion of the ship being cut off.

“We’ve seen video footage of the site, and we’ve not seen any abatement. We haven’t seen any of the workers wearing PPE, protective equipment,” said Gerlock.

“We’ve seen fires around pieces of the ship.”

The group has suspected asbestos was on the NOASS Miller Freeman since seeing its last auction listing that identifies asbestos in the ship’s insulation, tiles and wallboard.

(The auction listing for the NOASS Miller Freeman.)

Neighbours say for several days this week, there hasn’t appeared to be any activity on the site.

An email from MLA Josie Osbourne’s office relays from WorkSafeBC that an asbestos-abatement company had reviewed the work to be done on the NOASS Miller Freeman in Union Bay, but the company told CHEK News it hasn’t been retained by Deep Water Recovery.

The NGO Shipbreaking Platform says in a news release that the breaking up of the Miller Freeman is in blatant violation of international rules and standards, and “it supports the call for the immediate shutdown of the shipbreaking site in Union Bay…”

“One of the biggest challenges is there’s no proactive inspections by any of the regulatory bodies they’re all conducted as a result of the residents complaining,” said Marilynn Manning, another neighbour.

In a statement, B.C.’s Environment Ministry says it’s “monitoring the situation to ensure potential contamination is contained and/or diverted. Our focus is on working with the company to make sure they aren’t harming the environment.”

Two years ago, the Comox Valley Regional District filed a court injunction, arguing the property wasn’t properly zoned for shipbreaking. It’s still waiting on a court date.

Deep Water Recovery declined to comment for this story, but in the past, it’s said it wouldn’t be operating if it wasn’t following the strict rules around the industry.

Kendall Hanson

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