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How a bankrupt shipper’s blunder turned into a bureaucratic nightmare for Ottawa

Paula Freitag, a Tofino resident examines a shipping container chunk that washed up in front of Incinerator Rock at Long Beach.

Drew Penner/The Globe and Mail

More than five months after 35 shipping containers fell off an international cargo ship, scattering huge pieces of debris across the coastline near Tofino, the hunks of metal and bits of Styrofoam remain along the coast. The question of who is responsible for the cleanup is bouncing around federal government departments.

Local residents say they have been unable to get a straight answer on who will clean up the mess.

"What the … container incident taught me is that we're still in a regulatory nightmare in terms of trying to figure out who's responsible for what, and no one level of government is going to step forward and say, 'Okay look, I'll take care of it,'" Tofino mayor Josie Osborne said.

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The challenge comes as Ottawa begins to flesh out details of its $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan. The plan was announced last November and is aimed at getting tough on marine polluters and positioning Canada as a leader in marine safety and environmental security.

On Nov. 3, 2016, the Hanjin Seattle cargo ship got caught in stormy seas and lost the empty containers in the ocean eight nautical miles off the West Coast near the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The debris spread about 60 kilometres from Vargas Island to the north to the Broken Group Islands to the south. One hulking piece of metal jutted about three metres into the air off Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. It encased refrigeration mechanics and insulation foam.

Other debris, including several large container segments, was scattered outside park limits. And therein lies the challenge for locals who want it cleaned up.

Who is responsible for hauling away those pieces seems unclear.

A massive community effort in November led by the Pacific Rim chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a beach and ocean protection organization, cleaned up about 490 kilograms of trash, including 12 giant bags of Styrofoam. This is a small fraction of the overall mess created by the spill.

More than a month after the containers fell into the Pacific, Parks Canada staff removed the Long Beach chunk. The federal agency says it has dealt with three such pieces so far. However, this leaves 17 main sites identified as having significant quantities of debris.

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Ms. Osborne said she was happy to discover Hanjin Shipping, a Korean company, was sending Parks Canada tens of thousands of dollars for the cleanup. Hanjin, the seventh-largest shipping company in the world, filed for receivership last August, becoming the biggest container-carrier failure in history. The company was declared bankrupt in February.

"The fact that there's even some funding coming forward is almost a miracle," Ms. Osborne said.

But last month, Surfrider was told the money could not be used for cleanups outside Pacific Rim National Park because it was obtained through the Canada National Parks Act.

"The funds we asked from the Hanjin company are for the cleanup within the National Park as the company breached the Canada National Parks Act," Karen Haugen, the superintendent of the Pacific Rim National Park, told Michelle Hall, the volunteer chairperson of Surfrider Pacific Rim in an e-mail.

Ms. Haugen noted that any cleanup beyond the park "is not subject to these funds."

In December, when Parks Canada and Surfrider worked together to petition Hanjin for funding, they identified dozens of areas where debris had spread. They targeted the 17 main sites, only two of which are within national park boundaries.

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Parks Canada received a cheque for about $76,000 from Hanjin on Dec. 16, according to Surfrider Pacific Rim.

"A portion of these funds has been used to cover costs incurred during the removal of shipping-container debris from the park reserve," said Laura Judson, a Parks Canada spokesperson, adding the federal agency will look for ways to get rid of the remaining pieces, including those outside its jurisdiction, once winter storm season is over. "Parks Canada will continue work to remove the shipping debris and will look at opportunities to collaborate on the cleanup of the beaches using remaining funds."

Parks Canada had indicated it was willing to pay Surfrider Pacific Rim about $30,000 for cleanup work completed so far, but has cut that down to just over $15,000. The environmental organization is still awaiting payment and has turned to local businesses for cash.

Courtenay-Alberni NDP MP Gord Johns represents the area and raised the container cleanup in the House of Commons during Question Period on March 22.

It was budget day, and Mr. Johns wanted to know why Ottawa "continues to delay and refuses to act" on the matter.

"Large pieces of metal and chunks of Styrofoam are contaminating our sensitive ecosystems," he said, noting the government already had money from the company in the bank to get the job done, but "it still has not released the funds."

Transportation Minister Marc Garneau pledged to make sure the debris is removed.

"Mr. Speaker, occasionally incidents such as this do happen, and we have made it clear to the owner of the ship that it is responsible for the cleanup, and we will make sure that it does happen," he said.

Later that night, a local Parks Canada official contacted Surfrider, calling for the organization to organize a cleanup for the remaining container bits, including pieces outside the park.

The strategy was to get things tidied up before the close of Parks Canada's fiscal year, at the end of March.

Days later, the renewed effort was called off due to bad weather, and the spill response remains up in the air.

Critics say the Liberal government's Oceans Protection Plan would not help in this situation because it is too specifically focused on petrochemical industry accidents. It would change the rules of the Canadian Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund, created to provide compensation for oil spills from ships, to make sure it has enough money and can disburse it quickly to responders and victims.

"We need real action, and not just on oil and gas, but also on marine debris," Mr. Johns said.

Transport Canada, which is one of the federal departments involved in the Oceans Protection Plan, says the plan will safeguard the environment by hiring additional environmental response specialists to recover spilled products and extending the role of the Coast Guard Auxiliary to include environmental damage mitigation.

In response to the Hanjin Seattle spill, Transport Canada said, it provided aerial photos of the shoreline to Parks Canada.

"Containers lost from a container ship are subject to currents and may take a long period of time to reach land," Daniel Savoie, a Transport Canada spokesman, said when asked about the length of time the cleanup is taking. "As well, they may disperse and end up at varied locations and potentially great distances apart."

The department decided not to force Hanjin to remove the debris right away, even though it could have, because container fragments did not pose any immediate environmental or navigational hazards, Mr. Savoie added.

But Andrew DeVogelaere, a scientist with the U.S. federally protected Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary south of San Francisco, said shipping-container debris, even if it is not a navigation hazard, has been found to affect the environment in small but perceptible ways.

"It's changing the habitats where it lands and sits, I'm sure," he said of the Hanjin debris.

For example, he said his group's research has shown shipping containers can attract predators not usually found in a particular aquatic environment.

He believes the number of containers lost overboard annually is somewhere between the several hundred reported by industry and the 10,000 estimated by other organizations.

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