VANCOUVER - Almost seven decades after a U.S. military transport ship sank to the ocean floor off the north coast of British Columbia, the Canadian Coast Guard has received approval to remove bunker oil and other potentially hazardous materials from the Second World War-era vessel.
The maritime safety agency issued a request for proposals on Friday for a contractor to tap into the rotting hull of the Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski where it lies 100 kilometres south of Prince Rupert, B.C., burping oil to the surface.
"This was a vessel that was lost, ran aground and sank. It was one of those dark and stormy nights in 1946," said Roger Girouard, assistant commissioner of the western region for the coast guard.
The Zalinski was transporting ammunition and equipment to Alaska at the outset of the Cold War. The location of the wreck was consigned to history.
"There she sat for several decades," Girouard said.
It lies under 34 metres of water, on the edge of a cliff in the Grenville Channel, a narrow and scenic waterway that sees as many as a half dozen ferries and cruise ships a day in the summer and countless commercial fishing vessels.
Reports said no crew members died when the ship went down in a blinding rain storm, and the wreck remained out of sight and out of mind until an oil slick was reported to the coast guard in 2003.
The agency located the source of the oil using an underwater remote-controlled vehicle, and later divers retrieved the ship's bell to confirm her identity.
The coast guard had divers patch the hull, but further clean-up efforts stalled for a decade — a fact that still angers the nearby First Nations community of Hartley Bay.
"This has been a slow-motion oil spill in our backyard for 10 years," said Arnold Clifton, chief councillor of the Gitga'at Nation, the coastal community nearest the wreck.
The ship's manifest listed at least twelve 500-pound bombs, .30 and .50-calibre ammunition and 700 tonnes of bunker oil, and the fishing community is concerned about the potentially toxic effects of those materials on shellfish and other marine life.
Their concerns were exacerbated by the 2006 sinking of the Queen of the North ferry, located about 20 nautical miles south of the Zalinski, which has not been subject to a similar attempt to remove its fuel.
"We still have a full passenger ferry on the bottom, leaking diesel," said Andrew Frank, spokesman for the community. "When the nation is out fishing, they come across slicks of diesel every now and then."
Frank said the timing of the announcement is suspect, as marine safety has become the primary battleground for proponents and opponents of the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline to nearby Kitimat and the ensuing increase in tanker traffic.
Girouard said the issue of removing the fuel from the sunken ferry has been complicated by issues of ownership and liability.
As for the Zalinski, the potential environmental risk to fisheries and shellfish is the impetus for cleaning up the oil before the Zilinski deteriorates any further, he said.
A request has been made at a government level to the United States to share in the costs of the fuel removal operation, but Girouard said those discussions do not involve the coast guard.
The project is expected to begin in September and take up to three months using a process called "hot-tapping" — drilling holes into the side of the vessel to pump hot steam into the fuel tanks. As the steam increases the temperature of the oil, it flows more easily and can be pumped to the surface.
It is estimated that there are between 4,000 and 7,000 shipwrecks off the coasts of North America, and Girouard said Barclay Sound, off the west coast of Vancouver Island, is referred to as the "graveyard of the Pacific."
Some have been remediated; most have not.
"It's a big issue and it's just one of those imponderables in terms of scope and scale," he said.