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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Troubled waters: Advocates await federal solutions to container ship spills and lost sea cans

Debris from 2021 MV Zim Kingston spill still washing up across Vancouver Island's west coast

By Evert Lindquist
February 23, 2023
Environment
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Troubled waters: Advocates await federal solutions to container ship spills and lost sea cans

Debris from 2021 MV Zim Kingston spill still washing up across Vancouver Island's west coast

By Evert Lindquist
Feb 23, 2023
An aerial view of the burned shipping containers aboard the M/V Zim Kingston. Photo: Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy
An aerial view of the burned shipping containers aboard the M/V Zim Kingston. Photo: Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy
Environment
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Troubled waters: Advocates await federal solutions to container ship spills and lost sea cans

Debris from 2021 MV Zim Kingston spill still washing up across Vancouver Island's west coast

By Evert Lindquist
February 23, 2023
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Troubled waters: Advocates await federal solutions to container ship spills and lost sea cans
An aerial view of the burned shipping containers aboard the M/V Zim Kingston. Photo: Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy

Christmas decorations, footwear, fridge parts, takeout container lids and urinal mats – those are just some of the products that washed ashore for months after the MV Zim Kingston spill off the west coast of Vancouver Island on Oct. 21, 2021.

More than a year later, the wreckage is still washing up from the spill site near the west entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with debris littering the shoreline anywhere from northern Haida Gwaii to South Vancouver Island. Only four of the ship’s 109 containers have been recovered, and the largely volunteer-led cleanup continues.

“Imagine a kilometres-long stretch of beach that’s covered in things like plastic blow-up unicorns,” said Alys Hoyland, ocean plastic depot coordinator for the Ocean Legacy Foundation, a Vancouver-based non-profit that helps communities respond to shipping spills.

Two of the Zim Kingston containers carried potassium amyl xanthate – a toxic and flammable chemical, according to Juan Jose Alava of the University of British Columbia’s Ocean Pollution Research Unit. The ocean diluted most of the xanthate before it could concentrate in biota, but there could still be other toxic chemicals in the 105 lost containers, said Alava, a marine eco-toxicologist and conservation biologist.

It’s not the first time dozens of containers have gone overboard near Vancouver Island’s coastline. In November 2016, the 179-metre-long Hanjin Seattle lost 35 containers in stormy waters near the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Two of them washed ashore on beaches in Tofino, and fridges spilled along the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

As with the Zim Kingston spill, “the response was slow,” Hoyland recalled.

By the time a large-scale cleanup was coordinated, she said sheets of polyurethane foam from the Hanjin Seattle had already “smashed into smithereens” and would dot the coastline for years.

“It breaks into such small pieces; it’s almost impossible to clean up.”

Hoyland and other environmentalists want the shipping industry and federal government to craft a management system that tackles the growing issue of container spills. They say lax regulations, slow and poorly coordinated responses, and limited accountability for shippers mean that harmful debris continues to pollute the ocean and coasts, even years after a spill.

Container shipping is big business. In 2021, the international industry transported more than 240 million containers, worth more than $7 trillion US in cargo. At any time, there are at least 6,300 container ships en route. The industry was valued at $6.4 billion US in 2020, and it’s expected to grow by 12% annually, according to a 2020 report by Grand View Research, a San Francisco-based business consulting firm.

Debris continues to wash up along Vancouver Island's west coast from the MV Zim Kingston spill. Photo: Provided / Alys Hoyland of the Ocean Legacy Foundation and Surfrider Foundation Pacific Rim

Thousands of shipping containers lost at sea

But it’s not always smooth sailing. The World Shipping Council’s 2022 Containers Lost at Sea Report shows that an average of more than 1,600 containers have been lost at sea every year since 2008. At least 2,100 containers went missing in 2021, and an estimated 3,000 containers were lost in the northern Pacific Ocean between November 2020 and April 2021 alone.

Of these thousands of lost containers, less than three per cent ever get recovered, according to a 2019 proposal paper by Surfrider Foundation Europe, an organization aimed at protecting coasts and oceans.

“The matter of containers going overboard has really become too well-known a phenomenon in recent years,” said Trevor Heaver from UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

Heaver, who researches international shipping and maritime transportation policy, said oil, garbage and sewage issues fall under the International Maritime Organization’s jurisdiction, yet container spills don’t, and there are no comparable, well-established organizations to deal with them.

Canadian Coast Guard spokesperson Michelle Imbeau said polluters must finance cleanup in Canadian waters “to the satisfaction of the Government of Canada.” However, government agencies may step in when the responsible party is unknown, or can’t or won’t do the cleanup. In BC, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy can also manage container spill cleanup in such instances.

In the case of the Zim Kingston, the ship’s owner, Danaos Shipping Co. Ltd., co-led the spill response with the coast guard and hired a contractor to retrieve the containers and debris that washed ashore, Imbeau explained.

Danaos had to check, clean and report on areas impacted by the spill three, six and nine months after the accident, Imbeau said, and the corporation arranged a sonar survey around the spill zone in April and found no container-sized objects. Meanwhile, the coast guard still monitors for debris during overflights and notifies Danaos of anything believed to come from the Zim Kingston, ensuring it’s cleaned up, she added.

But the fact remains that 105 of the ship’s containers are lying somewhere on the ocean floor, and many will eventually corrode and release their contents into the water, polluting the ocean and shorelines for months or even years to come, critics warn. By then, the shipper may be long gone, or the debris harder to identify, making it hard to trace back to the responsible party.

Canada’s current legislation allows for three to six years of debris monitoring, but that “is not even scratching the surface for a spill of (the Zim Kingston’s) scale,” Hoyland said, calling for more regulations to hold shipping companies accountable. “That’s got to be one of the reasons why we’re losing so many – there’s very few consequences for the folks that are losing the materials overboard.”

Lisa Marie Barron, the federal NDP critic for fisheries, oceans and the coast guard, echoed these sentiments. “I was very disheartened to hear that the containers were just lost at sea,” she said. “There must be some mechanism to find these containers so that the waste and pollution and hazardous materials within these containers are not left to continue damage for years down the road.”

Barron, the member of Parliament for Nanaimo-Ladysmith, described Canada’s container spill response system as disjointed, incohesive and slow-moving, saying she’s observed a disconnect between the federal response and what happens on the ground and in the communities directly impacted.
In the case of the Zim Kingston, the coast guard says little debris has washed up on Vancouver Island’s western beaches, and it has all been removed. But coastal communities are “still seeing debris washing up on the shores as a result of the spill, and the reality is that we’re going to continue to see the debris washing up for years to come,” Barron said.

All foreign materials affects habitat

“Container spills can be highly damaging to our environment, with polystyrene washing up on our shores, hazardous materials that need to be dealt with accordingly and debris with plastics washing up,” she added.

Gisele Martin, of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation on Vancouver Island, said in an email that synthetic debris littered her community’s territory for months after the spill. She recalled how she developed a skin allergy to Styrofoam after collecting trash from beaches for a dollar a day at age nine and said she worries native species may also suffer hypersensitivities to washed-up debris.

Alava said the future of container spill management must involve thorough consultation with coastal First Nations, whose food sources can also be affected by ship debris. He noted that animals can become entangled in plastics from lost containers or mistake them for food. Alava also worries about the impact of the missing containers, which range from 33 to 76 cubic metres, on essential marine habitat.

“Anything that doesn’t belong – anything that is strange, artificial, human-made – is affecting critical habitat and is affecting these species and somehow can have some repercussions in the long term for the animals,” he said, adding the Zim Kingston incident occurred in critical southern resident orca habitat.

Shipping companies do not have to publicly disclose the contents of spilled cargo – even if it includes hazardous materials, environmentalists say. There is no central database for logging lost container incidents, a 2014 report by the U.S. National Ocean Service found, and container damage and loss reports are kept confidential and rarely shared beyond vessel operators and maritime authorities.

Debris continues to wash up along Vancouver Island's west coast from the MV Zim Kingston spill. Photo: Provided / Alys Hoyland of the Ocean Legacy Foundation and Surfrider Foundation Pacific Rim

Miako Ushio of the Shipping Federation of Canada said via email this happens for commercial and security reasons, but shippers must still declare container contents to maritime authorities. Canada follows the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships to ensure rules for foreign vessels are consistent, said Ushio, the federation’s environmental and regulatory affairs manager.

But Hoyland said not having a manifest, a document that lists a vessel’s contents, means shipping companies often can’t be held accountable for spills. For example, this makes it difficult to know which debris belongs to the Zim Kingston, so appropriate fines are enforced.

“At no point have we been provided with a list of exactly what was in each container,” she said.
Shippers themselves sometimes don’t know what’s in their containers – even when it comes to potentially toxic contents, Heaver said.

“It’s certainly a problem that shipping companies have had – inadequate declaration by shippers of hazardous material that may be in the containers,” he said, noting they may inaccurately declare cargo on purpose to circumvent regulations for hazardous materials.

A 2015 Cargo Incident Notification System study by the world’s five largest shipping lines found that 32% of container incidents are caused by declarations with incorrect data, 27% by poor stowage and stacking and 17% by incorrect packaging.

Before the Zim Kingston’s spill, Transport Canada inspected the vessel and examined its records and documentation to ensure it complied with maritime conventions and safety, according to spokesperson Sau Sau Liu.

Transport Canada also provided safety advice, dangerous goods expertise, aerial surveillance of the vessel, and reviewed the salvage plan for the lost containers, Liu said, adding that the department continues to monitor the situation.

Environmentalists are calling for changes to international regulations to require vessels to publicize their manifests for every vessel. This would make it easier to locate sunken containers, said Ben Boulton, project manager for the Rugged Coast Research Society, a Nanaimo-based charity that conducts restoration projects such as marine debris cleanups along western Vancouver Island.

In the meantime, Boulton’s organization has been doing complex detective work to track and remove items from the Zim Kingston’s lost containers, using weather maps and oceanographic data to identify high-density debris areas. This allows them to approximate where containers have opened up underwater.

In November, they found more than 100 urinal mats along tiny stretches of beach.

“When we find a type of … debris in those numbers and it’s something that’s new that’s not in the datasets that we’ve collected so far, you can make a pretty good assumption that that container is somewhere close by,” Boulton said.

Heaver stressed that shipping companies are highly motivated to avoid spills, which trigger insurance penalties and throw vessels off schedule. Accidents can also cause delays that mean non-spilled goods expire or lose value, he added.

Shippers “are the first ones with an interest in stopping [spills],” Heaver said. “There’s really nothing but cost, from the standpoint of the shipping company and its customers.”

But Hoyland said container spills don’t hurt companies enough financially for them to take “extreme measures” to avoid losing cargo.

“Anybody that lives out here knows that that cleanup isn’t going to be done within the scope of weeks or months,” she said of the Zim Kingston incident. “We’re talking about years of cleanup for a spill of this size.”

Federal recommendations

Under mounting pressure from environmental groups like Hoyland’s, the federal government is taking steps to address this issue.

In a report tabled Oct. 6, the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans found that Canada’s federal government, provinces and coastal communities aren’t equipped to manage container spills. These groups lack the “salvage capability” to mitigate the long-term environmental impacts of marine debris, as well as the ability to track floating containers and retrieve sunken ones, it concluded.

The panel made 29 recommendations, including calls for increased spill response capacity, a comprehensive monitoring and management plan for marine debris, public access to vessels’ manifests, and greater accountability of responsible parties. The recommendations echo three made by Hoyland and colleague Lucas Harris, who testified before the committee March 31 on behalf of Surfrider Foundation Canada.

It’s now about “keeping feet to the fire” to see the government act on those recommendations, Hoyland said.
“A top priority for us would be seeing that marine debris management plan developed and some budget allocated to that,” she explained, noting some money has already been invested in marine protection.

April’s federal budget saw Canada commit more than $975 million to protecting a quarter of its marine and coastal land by 2025. The budget also proposed $2 billion over nine years to renew and expand the federal government’s Oceans Protection Plan. Provincially, BC’s Clean Coast, Clean Waters Initiative has put more than $24 million toward derelict vessel removal and shoreline cleanup for three years.

But Boulton said these investments are peanuts: “There is an astronomical amount of plastic in the ocean,” he said.
For now, Hoyland said she hopes the issue of container debris stays in the spotlight.

“It’s coastal communities that are going to be carrying that burden for decades to come as they continue to find marine debris washing up on their shorelines.”

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