Shipbreaking, one of the world’s dirtiest and most dangerous industries, risks fouling the shores of Union Bay, BC, on the east coast of Vancouver Island.
The unregulated recycling of old ships has alarmed Union Bay residents, K’ómoks First Nation, and an international NGO. They fear hazardous materials from old vessels at the heavy industrial site will contaminate the land, ocean, and oyster beds of Baynes Sound and present dangers to nearby residential homes.
The trouble began in 2018 when ship scrapping company Deep Water Recovery (DWR) bought Union Bay Industries, a former log sort just north of the small community of Union Bay. In 2020 the company began pulling old barges up onto the asphalt yard of the log sort and dismantling them.
Residents almost immediately filed complaints to the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) who informed DWR that shipbreaking was not allowed, according to reports by the Comox Record. But work at the site has carried on unabated.
Since DWR’s arrival, the site has accumulated several barges on land and three ships moored at or near the log sort’s jetty. To date it appears only the barges are being dismantled.
K’ómoks First Nation released a statement in December calling the operation “an environmental disaster waiting to happen” and asking governments to act. “For more than 18 months, and as recently as this October, KFN has been expressing their concerns about this specific situation to both the federal and provincial governments, as well as to the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD), without resolution.”
In mid-February the issue came to a head when regional directors of the CVRD voted to deem shipbreaking a non-permitted use in industrial marine zones in the district. As of this writing the CVRD is pursuing a court injunction to enforce the non-permitted status and halt work at the DWR site.
The fleet of old ships at DWR’s site includes: The Queen of Burnaby, launched in 1965, which from 2001 until its retirement in 2017 was the ferry between Comox and Powell River; the Miller Freeman and Surveyor, both decommissioned US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) vessels, launched in 1966 and 1959 respectively. Both NOAA ships have been moored along the Fraser River in New Westminster or Maple Ridge since 2016-2018.
According to ship industry trade magazine The Maritime Executive, Surveyor has had hazardous substances removed, and Miller Freeman has had PCBs removed, but is confirmed to contain asbestos.
The Queen of Burnaby contains asbestos and very likely PCBs, considering its age and duty.
About 40 local residents formed Concerned Citizen of Baynes Sound (CCOBS) last fall in opposition to the dismantling operation. Spokesperson Ray Rewcastle says shipbreaking has no place in Union Bay.
“We’re trying to keep the environment safe, Baynes Sound safe, our community safe, Rewcastle says. “We have friends that have young children that are less than 100 feet away from this thing. Shipbreaking doesn’t belong here. It belongs in a proper industrial heavy port like Vancouver or Victoria. And even then it has to be brought up on a dry dock, completely contained.”
Union Bay residents have complained of open burning, noxious smells, and noise pollution from the site, Rewcastle adds.
BC’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) has been inexplicably lenient with DWR, according to CCOBS. The ministry granted an initial foreshore licence to DWR to do work across the intertidal zone, then rescinded the licence after receiving complaints, but soon after granted a new licence that allowed vessels to be dragged across the foreshore, Rewcastle says, without public consultation or environmental assessment.
“So then we started asking [FLNRORD] all these pointed questions,” Rewcastle says. “Well, we never got good answers. We met with them. We got a lot of typical government runaround.”
According to Rewcastle, CCOBS has also gotten wishy-washy information on the status of the Queen of Burnaby from BC Ferries.
“They basically said in correspondence that they are just mooring it here because they ran out of room over in the lower mainland. So it’s just over here temporarily until they find a suitable company that would be able to break it up. But we also have correspondence from a senior individual at BC Ferries that basically says that they’re in final negotiations with DWR to break up the vessel.”
In a statement to the Sentinel, BC Ferries said the Queen of Burnaby’s moorage at Union Bay is a temporary arrangement “while we actively evaluate options for recycling the ship.”
“BC Ferries is committed to protecting the environment. We do not support or condone ship recycling practices that do not respect the environment and employ modern techniques to safely and cleanly recycle all materials,” the statement says.
NGO Shipbreaking platform
DWR has also drawn the scrutiny of Belgium-based NGO Shipbreaking Platform, an international coalition of 17 non-governmental organizations allied against shipbreaking. Normally concerned primarily with shipbreaking yards in South Asia, the Platform wrote a letter on January 11 to federal, provincial and regional authorities condemning the scrapping.
A 2016 European Commission report confirms that irresponsible ship recycling is linked to land, water, and air pollution from oil residues, lead, PCBs, asbestos, heavy metals, and more.
“We do not consider that the landing of vessels onto shores that are unable to contain the many hazardous materials onboard and embedded within the ships’ structures, as currently happening at Union Bay, is a sustainable or acceptable way of recycling ships,” the letter reads.
The letter cites a 2016 European Commission report that confirms irresponsible ship recycling is linked to land, water, and air pollution from oil residues, lead, PCBs, asbestos, heavy metals, and more.
“The scrapping activities at Deep Water Recovery LTD are taking place alarmingly close to a residential area and… in an Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area (EBSA)…. it is clear that Deep Water Recovery LTD is not operating in line with international requirements for the safe and environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes.”
Deep Water Recovery
DWR owner Mark Jurisich says the complaints against the company have been motivated by nearby residents’ concern for their property values, after work started up on the previously idle site. Since then, Jurisich says sensational accusations have grown into a smear campaign – “It’s trial by media to some extent.”
Jurisich says DWR carefully monitors water runoff from the site, and the property is cleaner now than before operations began. “We have Environment Canada coming to our property, we have WorsafeBC coming to our property, and we have never had one infraction.”
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Jurisich says. “We didn’t come here to set up a shipbreaking business. We have never hauled a motorized [vessel] out of the water. We had given two vessels to a company in Vancouver to recycle, and the guy in charge ended up having a falling out with the owners and left…. We were just being responsible in trying to deal with our own problem.”
The Big Picture
The accusations of negligent ship recycling at Union Bay offer a window to a much larger problem.
Worldwide, most oceangoing ships are scrapped in South Asian countries with lax environmental laws and poor worker protections. The ships are run aground on beaches at high tide, to be dismantled by poorly shod workers making subsistence pay under dangerous conditions. Worker injuries and deaths are common. The system saves ship owners money, while burdening impoverished countries with toxic waste.
Nicola Mulinaris, Shipbreaking Platform’s senior communication and policy advisor, says although there’s been some incremental progress, just as many ships are broken irresponsibly as 30 years ago, and shipbreaking remains a destructive scourge on the coastlines of South Asia.
“Seventy per cent of ships every year end up being broken under dirty and dangerous conditions on the beaches of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan,” Mulinaris says, “which amounts to 90% of the gross tonnage dismantled globally.”
A small percentage are scrapped properly, mostly in European facilities.
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal is the only international mechanism to enforce responsible ship recycling. The convention restricts the movement of hazardous materials, including end-of-life ships, by signatory countries.
The export of hazardous waste from Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries to non-OECD countries is prohibited under the convention, and import-export between OECD countries or between non-OECD countries is controlled. The exporting country is responsible for guaranteeing that the importer is able to process hazardous materials in an environmentally sustainable way.
Some states offer lower priced “last voyage” packages for ship owners to offload end-of-life ships with a minimum of disclosure and scrutiny.
However, ship owners are able to skirt the regulations by not declaring their ship is voyaging for breaking. “They say to port authorities ‘look, we’re going to Oman for repair’ or ‘we’re going on an operational voyage to Sri Lanka,'” Mulinaris says. “Only when in international waters, where the exporting countries cannot do anything about it, do they head for a [shipbreaking] beach.”
And some countries simply lack the resources or even the will to enforce the convention, Mulinaris says.
Ship owners also shield themselves from liability with flags of convenience. For a fee, a ship can be registered under the flag of a country, and subject to its regulations, with no link to the vessel’s actual ownership or sphere of operations. Flags of convenience countries have slack regulations and little taxes.
Registration in countries such as Saint Kitts and Nevis, Comoros, Palau and Tuvalu is popular for the final voyage of ships that end up on shipbreaking beaches. Some states even offer lower priced “last voyage” packages for ship owners to offload end-of-life ships with a minimum of disclosure and scrutiny.
Hong Kong Convention
The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships was adopted by the UN International Maritime Organization in 2009, ostensibly to firm up environmental and worker protections, but has never been ratified.
The Hong Kong Convention, if brought into force, could become a Trojan horse for the shipbreaking industry.
Industry voices have called for the Hong Kong Convention to be ratified to fully replace the Basel Convention, but Mulinaris says the former is “super weak” and if brought into force would become a Trojan horse for the shipbreaking industry. The bill doesn’t ban ship beaching or cover downstream waste management.
“The biggest promoters of [the Hong Kong Convention] are the same companies – the intermediaries, the ship owners, the ship breakers – that are profiting from dirty and dangerous practices, because when it will enter into force, it will be the perfect way of rubber stamping substandard practices.”
Yet there are some good elements to the convention, Mulinaris says, which have been copied and combined by the EU with the Basel Convention and with further regulations, to form a capable framework to ensure responsible ship recycling.
The first step for Canada to catch up to Europe is to develop a regulatory regime that mirrors the EU’s, Mulinaris says. Then ship recycling capacity needs to be built.
“There are a lot of docks around Canada that are not used or are barely used for repair work. Why not convert those and create green jobs for the circular economy?”
Most ships from Canada that end up broken internationally are from the Great Lakes, Mulinaris says. This poses an additional risk during transit because the ships aren’t designed for the high seas.
Whether in Bangladesh or Union Bay, Mulinaris says, impermeable dry docks are ultimately the only way to guarantee containment of hazardous materials.
“So if you’re talking about big picture, long term, do I see that our dry dock, clean and safe vision is getting closer in the coming years? No, unless a radical shift takes place. Are workers still dying? Yes. Is there still pollution in Bangladesh and other South Asian yards? A lot.”
This story has been updated to include comments by Mark Jurisich of Deep Water Recovery.