It’s been over three months since 109 shipping containers were knocked from a cargo ship traveling through rough seas off the west coast of Vancouver Island, yet the location of all but four remain unknown.
Ashley Tapp, co-founder of Epic Exeo, said her initial optimism that the ship’s owner would be held accountable for the missing containers has begun to fade.
“I’m starting to get pretty discouraged,” she said.
Epic Exeo is a non-profit organization based out of Port McNeill that focuses on beach clean-ups along the north coast, where four of the containers were located on Oct. 29.
Despite specializing in the area, Tapp said it took at least a week before she was asked to coordinate clean-ups in the Cape Scott area, south of Palmerston Beach and Raft Cove, which were executed by volunteers.
Contractors hired by the ship’s owner to organize beach clean-ups were not local and were unfamiliar with the geography of the area, said Alys Hoyland, Surfrider Pacific Rim beach clean coordinator.
“It was more than a week before any kind of clean-up effort started,” she said. “And the longer it took for the clean-up to start, the worse it got.”
Currently, the delegation of authority falls in the lap of the shipping company, who doesn’t have local ties to the area, said Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns.
Johns said he tried to reach out to Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray to help “provide guidance and connections to coastal communities and resources to help with the clean-up,” but she never responded.
Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC) President Judith Sayers raised similar concerns over the lack of communication with the 14 Nuu-chah-nulth nations along the coast who may be impacted by the spill for years to come.
“The ongoing incident involving the container ship Zim Kingston has brought to light numerous shortcomings in the overall marine emergency response capacity for the west coast of Vancouver Island,” Sayers wrote in a letter addressed to Transport Minister Omar Alghabra in mid-November after the incident occurred Oct. 22.
Hazardous chemicals are in at least two of the 105 missing 40-foot containers. Other contents include Christmas decorations, metal car parts, clothing, toys, as well as industrial parts.
In early-December, Hoyland said grey rubber mats linked to the cargo spill started washing up near Tofino in Florencia Bay and in the Hesquiaht Harbour. She hasn’t received any further reports of container debris in Clayoquot or Barkley Sound, but said “there's quite a bit being reported up in Haida Gwaii.”
According to Ray Williams of the to Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation, large chunks of Styrofoam began populating the beaches around Yuquot in December. The problem has persisted, said Williams, who worries about the fish as the material breaks down into small pellets.
Nicole Gervais also reported that chunks of Styrofoam started washing ashore on the northern end of Long Beach, near the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation community of Esowista, in early-December.
Unlike the Styrofoam used for docking floats, Gervais’ daughter, Gisele Martin, said the pieces that littered the high-tide line all the way to Schooner Cove had edges carved into them.
It’s packing material, she suggested.
But without any way of tracking the Styrofoam, there’s no way of knowing where it came from.
In response to Gervais’ report, Surfrider Pacific Rim organized a beach clean along the Esowista Peninsula and Combers Beach, where Hoyland said they removed a metal barrel, a large plastic buoy, a tire, a section of a boat, plastic fragments, as well as single-use items such as plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and plastic packaging.
Beach clean-up organizations have not been given the full manifest, which identifies the contents of the overboard containers. Without it, Hoyland said it’ll be “incredibly hard” to prove the extent of the spread, or to hold the ship’s owner accountable.
The coast guard said it is “not at liberty” to share the manifest because they don’t own the document, but that debris from the Zim Kingston is “distinct from regular marine debris."
“Typical marine debris tends to be plastic water bottles, fishing rope and nets, microplastics and hard plastic floats,” the coast guard said. “Debris from the Zim Kingston continues to be the same type of material that was originally seen in November [and] December, including Christmas decorations, clothing, toys, gym mats, boots and shoes, refrigerator parts, and other everyday items.”
It is required by law for the polluter to pay for any cleanup activities to the “satisfaction of the Government of Canada,” the coast guard said.
As of early December, the coast guard said around 47,650 kilograms of debris had been removed from the beaches along the northern coast of Vancouver Island.
By mid-December, the coast guard said the beaches where debris was reported were “considered to be clean.”
Tapp returned to Cape Palmerston and Grant Bay on Dec. 14 and found a pink blow-up unicorn, baby oil containers, cologne bottles, Paw Patrol bike helmets with zip ties still attached, as well as intact Styrofoam and bubble wrap in the area south of Cape Scott.
“[The government’s] definition of clean is completely different from ours,” she said. “You can't just go and clean a beach and then wipe your hands of it. [Debris] keeps coming back.”
Tapp said she made reports of her findings to the coast guard but “nothing has come of that.”
Instead, she was asked to file future reports through their 1-800 number.
The recent heavy snowfall has made it impossible for Tapp to return to the area since, but she’s gearing up to head back to Cape Palmerston on Feb. 12.
No one has reached out to Tapp since she was originally contacted in early-November.
“We’re already past mid-January … and I've had nobody tell me any kind of plan as to what they're going to do to move forward,” she said. “I've had no one reach out and ask if I've been out there again.”
Every few months, the coast guard said the ship’s owner will check the known accumulation sites for debris “likely to be from the Zim Kingston.”
“The Canadian Coast Guard will also monitor for debris when conducting overflights in the west coast Vancouver Island area and any reported debris believed to be from the Zim Kingston will be followed up on,” the coast guard added.
Given that debris remained on the beaches after they were declared “clean,” Tapp said “I’d really love to know what their definition of ‘monitor the beaches’ actually is.”
The coast guard said they continue to work with the ship’s owner to create a plan to conduct a sonar scan of the area where the containers went overboard, as well as an assessment of risk that the overboard containers could pose to the environment.
“The vessel owner has hired a contractor to conduct the scan but they need to wait for an appropriate weather window to complete the work,” the coast guard said.
Tapp said the weather likely isn’t going to change for another few months.
“By then, I worry that if they’re finding shipping containers that are close to shore they’re going to be breaking open,” she said.
Looking ahead, Tapp said she suspects the debris will likely become the responsibility of the coastal communities of where it washes ashore.
“It’s going to add into our regular beach cleaning at this point,” she said. “That’s not what I want, but I can’t just leave it and we have to continue on.”