On May 19, 2009, Global Diving & Salvage and Mammoet Salvage of Holland accomplished a highly technical deep-water recovery of a fuel-laden tanker trunk in the sensitive waters of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve at the northern end of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The reserve is considered critical habitat for the resident Orca (Killer Whale) populations along Canada’s west coast. The work was performed directly for the Ministry of Environment, British Columbia.

Working at a depth of 1,165', using a state-of-the-art remote operated vehicle (ROV), a dive team, and a specially engineered Deep Water Recovery Casing (DWRC), our team carefully and successfully recovered a sunken tanker truck laden with diesel fuel and a container of assorted oils from the bottom. The operation was completed safely and with no additional impact to the environment.

How it happened...

A barge loaded with logging equipment, including a fuel truck carrying diesel fuel, turned turtle yesterday and dropped its load into the water at Robson Bight, the protected area where threatened northern resident killer whales feed and rub their bellies.

An oily sheen, about two kilometres long, could be seen on the water shortly after the accident and environmental groups say it is almost inevitable some of the 60 whales known to be in the immediate area will come in contact with the fuel.

"There couldn't have been a worse place for this to happen. It's the only protected rubbing beach on the coast of B.C.," said Jennifer Lash of the Living Oceans Society.

The Regional Environmental Emergency Team, made up of government agencies, will plan the cleanup, looking particularly at habitat, said coast guard spokesman Dan Bate. But it is the responsibility of the barge and tug owners to organize and pay for the cleanup. Burrard Clean was on its way yesterday evening at the request of Ted LeRoy Trucking of Chemainus, owner of the equipment.

B.C. Environment Ministry spokeswoman Kate Thompson said the fuel truck has a 10,000-litre capacity and it is not yet known how much spilled.

The provincial ecological reserve at Robson Bight was set up in 1982 to protect the core area where northern resident orcas spend their time foraging, resting and rubbing. Most of the 230 northern resident orcas are in the area near Alert Bay and Johnstone Strait.

Trucking company owner Ted LeRoy said the cause of the accident is under investigation. "I heard a report that the barge started to take on water in one corner," he said.

In addition to the fuel truck, equipment such as a bulldozer, log loader, ambulance and trucks are sitting on the ocean floor and divers will assess the situation, LeRoy said.

"We've never had anything like this in about 30 years."

A deckhand suffered a crushed ankle in the accident, but should be released from hospital tonight, LeRoy said.

Paul Spong, director of OrcaLab on nearby Hanson Island, said the noise through hydrophones when the equipment hit the bottom was deafening. "There were orcas right next to the barge when it tipped, but they headed east pretty soon after and haven't returned."

Diesel fuel dissipates and evaporates under the sun, meaning it is not the same scenario as the Exxon Valdez crude oil spill, which killed 22 killer whales. "But we're going to have to keep our fingers crossed the whales don't encounter it," Spong said.

Lash, of Living Oceans, said no efforts were made at containment. "It's an indication of how poorly prepared people are on this coast to respond to an oil spill," she said.

The wreckage appears to be at least 100 metres within the reserve area, she said. "Ships are supposed to go around that area."

© (c) CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

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