Derelict boat bill sinks in House of Commons

Private member's bill brought by Nanaimo-Cowichan MP would have designated Coast Guard receiver of wrecks

The wheelhouse and deck of the MV Pursepa are shown separated from the hull as the boat languished in the mouth of Campbell River in early April.

Barring a change in heart by the House of Commons, responsibility for the next abandoned boat in Campbell River-area waters may fall right back on local volunteers — and taxpayers.

A private member’s bill on derelict vessels, brought by NDP MP Jean Crowder of Nanaimo-Cowichan, was shot down in a 145-113 vote in the house last month.

The bill would have designated the Canadian Coast Guard the “receiver of wrecks” and would have obligated the federal government to establish regulations for removal and disposition of abandoned vessels.

A derelict vessel left stranded on a gravel bar in the mouth of Campbell River earlier this year was removed in part by a group of volunteers, with a $3,500 contribution from the City.

Opponents of Bill C-638 objected that it would force the Coast Guard to handle the removal of all derelict vessels, with a corresponding cost to Canadian taxpayers. Crowder said that was a mis-characterization of the bill, which would still have allowed the Coast Guard to track down the original owner of an abandoned vessel to remove it or pay for its removal.

“It is still incumbent upon the owners to be responsible,” she said during the floor debate. “If we wait for all derelict vessels to become navigational or environmental hazards, the cost of dealing with them goes up.”

Rather, the bill was meant to eliminate “a real jurisdictional nightmare” by designating a single government agency to oversee the problem, Crowder told the North Shore News following the failed vote.

The Coast Guard, Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, and Environment Canada may each have jurisdiction over wrecks, depending on the circumstances. At other times, abandoned vessels slip past all of them and are left to local communities to address.

The MV Pursepa, a 50-foot, converted live-aboard boat, ran aground while traveling downstream in Campbell River in early March. When the captain was unable to float it on the tide, it was left in the river as it listed to starboard.

The Coast Guard, which has environmental response jurisdiction, did eventually contract removal of the fuel tank and engines, but left the remaining hulk on the bar. As residents along the bank began to notice parts of the boat begin to wash up onto the shore, a group of volunteers took on the task of removing the boat.

In one trip out to the bar, the volunteers removed the wheelhouse, upper deck and batteries and carted the debris to the landfill. The tipping fee was waived for that trip, but the group did incur an expense when it hired an industrial helicopter to remove the heavier ballast and keel in an effort that finally cleaned the gravel bar nearly seven weeks after the ship first ran aground.

“I’m a retired logger,” said Mike Gage, is heavily involved in salmon enhancement and restoration efforts in the region. “That’s the way we get things done. The Coast Guard and DFO have been so stripped of their funds they can’t take this on.”

City Council voted to support the volunteer efforts by paying $3,500 to cover the cost of the helicopter.

“How can you say thank you to the people who step up when something needs to be done?” Coun. Larry Sampson said. “When you have citizens stepping up like this so quickly, all you can say is, ‘Thank you,’ and support them as much as we can.”

It was the second time Gage was involved in a volunteer boat clean-up effort, following the removal of a small craft near the mouth of Willow Creek four years ago.

Crowder’s bill was intended to lift that onus from volunteers, cities and other government agencies at various levels.

“While they may start out as something that people see simply as an eyesore, many go on to become hazards to safety or to the environment,” NDP MP Randall Garrison (Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca) said in support of the bill. “The intention of Bill C-638 is to give the Coast Guard the regulatory power it needs to take action before derelict vessels become a problem.”

Only one member of the Conservative majority broke ranks to vote for the bill. John Weston (West Vancouver) said the bill was flawed but he voted with the opposition because of the importance of the issue to the people in his riding.

He said he planned to introduce his own private member’s bill, with an emphasis on criminal and financial penalties for owners of abandoned vessels.

“Some of these owners are destitute anyway, so you’re going to put them in jail or give them a heavy fine, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” Crowder said. “The vessels are still there.”

With files from John Gleeson, Black Press.