PRINCE RUPERT, British Columbia (AP) — A disabled Russian cargo ship carrying hundreds of tons of fuel was in route to port in British Columbia for repairs and the rescue operation was declared officially over Sunday, but a debate brewed over oil tanker safety off Canada's West Coast.
A large American tug boat was pulling the Russian vessel, ending fears that the vessel would drift ashore, hit rocks and spill.
The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Spar are providing escort service.
Canadian Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea issued a statement thanking rescuers for their quick response.
"Through close co-ordination between the Canadian Coast Guard and the Department of National Defence, the Government of Canada was able to take immediate action to halt the Russian-flagged ship Simushir from drifting into shore," she said.
But British Columbia is engaged in a divisive debate over two proposed oil pipelines connecting the Alberta oilsands to West Coast ports.
The federal government has approved Enbridge's $7.9-billion Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, while Kinder Morgan's $5.4-billion expansion of its existing Trans Mountain line to Metro Vancouver is now before the National Energy Board. Combined, they would result in more than 600 additional oil tankers a year plying West Coast waters.
The British Columbia government also has designs for a trillion-dollar liquefied natural gas industry that would add hundreds more tankers to that tally.
Ottawa has made a flurry of announcements about marine safety since Northern Gateway ran into trouble, including improved liability coverage and increased tanker inspections.
The Simushir was seen as a test of whether sufficient safety measures are in place.
The results were "discouraging," said Darryl Anderson, a marine transport analyst at Wave Point Consulting in Victoria.
"It was encouraging that the coast guard, with the limited resources they have, did take charge," he said. But "they don't have the capacity. We haven't funded the coast guard properly for a number of years — and not just this federal government."
It took almost two days for an ocean-going tugboat to reach the Simushir, which lost power due to a mechanical failure late Thursday off Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, as it made its way from Everett in Washington state to Russia.
The Barbara Foss was sent from Washington state, and Anderson wondered why British Columbia doesn't have a dedicated tug stationed along the coast, which has been recommended repeatedly since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.
On Friday, as the ship awaited help, Canadian Environment Minister Mary Polak said a lot must be discussed, including the length of time it took a tugboat to reach the vessel.
The province is working with the federal government on a "world-class" spill response regime, Polak said.
"We knew that the spill response capability here currently is not sufficient for our current vessel traffic. That's not news; that's something we've said for some time," Polak said.
"I'm pleased to say that in recent months, we've had that co-operation from the federal government."
The owners of the Russian vessel plan to have it taken to Prince Rupert, the nearest container ship port, which is 93 nautical miles (171 kilometers) away from where the tow operation began, another rescue spokesperson, Acting Sub Lt. Melissa Kia, said Sunday.
Kia said the winds and seas have calmed significantly since Saturday, and at their current speed of seven nautical miles per hour (13 kilometers per hour) the ships should reach Prince Rupert later Sunday.
The Canadian Coast Guard ship Gordon Reid earlier had started towing the disabled ship away from shore, but a towline got detached and the ship was adrift again for six hours Saturday.
The 10 crew members were trying to repair the broken oil heater that has left the vessel disabled, Royal Canadian Navy Lt. Greg Menzies said.
The Simushir, which is about 440 feet (135 meters) long, was carrying a range of hydrocarbons, mining materials and other related chemicals. That included 400 tons of bunker oil and 50 tons of diesel.
The vessel is not a tanker but rather a container ship. In comparison, the tanker Exxon Valdez, spilled 35,000 metric tons of oil.
A spokesman for Russian shipping firm SASCO, the owners of the vessel, said it is carrying 298 containers of mining equipment in addition to heavy bunker fuel as well as diesel oil for the voyage.
The Simushir is registered in Kholmsk, Russia, and owned by SASCO, also known as Sakhalin Shipping Company, according to the company's website. The SASCO website says the ship was built in the Netherlands in 1998.