METRO VANCOUVER — A large bulk carrier docking at Westshore Terminals in Roberts Bank destroyed a coal conveyor system early Friday morning, knocking out the largest of the port’s two berths and spilling an undetermined amount of coal into Georgia Strait.
The mishap has put the berth out of service for an indefinite period of time, affected the port’s ability to export coal, disrupted customer deliveries and caused a yet-to-be-determined effect on the waters off the Fraser delta.
The loss of the berth, which handles ships with a cargo capacity up to 260,000 tonnes, is a significant blow to Westshore, which is North America’s largest coal exporting port. Westshore has one remaining berth, which can handle ships with a capacity of 180,000 tonnes.
The mishap happened at 1 a.m. when the bulk carrier Cape Apricot, with a capacity of 180,000 tonnes, slammed into a trestle, the only link between the berth and the terminal, destroying more than 100 metres of it. The ship went right through the causeway, taking a road, the coal-carrying conveyor belt, and electric and water lines with it.
“We’ve got a ship there that’s stranded now. We can’t get to it,” said Westshore spokesman Ray Dykes.
Dykes did not know how much coal was spilled but estimated that about one third of a railcar load went into the water.
“Whatever was on the belt when the ship went right through the belt – and right through the causeway – that went into the water,” he said.
Yoss Leclerc, Harbour Master for Port Metro Vancouver, said he was at the scene by 5 a.m. and determined there were no injuries. No oil was spilled. He said the cause of the mishap remains unknown but the Transportation Safety Board is investigating. The ship had a pilot on board.
He said emergency and environmental agencies were contacted and that Port Metro Vancouver has already started a cleanup of the spilled coal. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is the lead agency on the spill response. Calls to the Vancouver regional office were not returned Friday.
The spill off the Fraser delta is being viewed by coal critics as strong ammunition in their fight against the growing volume of coal exports through Port Metro Vancouver.
“This really is coal’s Enbridge moment. It shows the problems that can happen with these exports and the potential risks coal poses to the environment,” said activist Kevin Washbrook, of Voters Take Action on Climate Change. An aerial photo of the accident taken by radio station CKNW shows a plume of coal extending out from both ends of the broken trestle.
“There is clearly a long plume of coal dust in the ocean and coal dust is harmful to marine life. It is harmful to salmon, it is harmful to shorebirds, it is harmful to the aquatic organisms that live on the mudflats,” Washbrook said.
Washbrook said the accident reinforces environmentalist arguments that a proposed expansion of coal export capacity by Port Metro Vancouver needs a full public review. The port is considering applications by Fraser Surrey Docks and Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver to expand coal exports, but is not planning on holding a public review.
Dykes said after the collision that there was an emergency shutdown of the conveyor belt. No damage was done to berth itself, called Berth One, but it is without access and without power. A ship at the berth was in the early stages of loading. It will likely have to depart, Dykes said.
Dykes said staff are assessing damage to the berth and would have a better idea by Monday when the berth will reopen. He added that there little damage to the Cape Apricot.
“There were only a few scrapes on the bow.”
The berth will be out of commission for an undermined length of time.
“You can’t span 400 feet of causeway in an afternoon,” Dykes said of the damage.
He said customers have been contacting the company all day seeking answers to what the loss of the berth means to shipments. Westshore does not have the answers yet.
“We were looking forward to having a capacity of 33 million tonnes,” he said. “We were hoping to have a record year. There is some serious thinking to that plan now.”
The terminal is the main shipping point for metallurgical coal from Teck Resources mines in eastern British Columbia. It is also used by U.S. coal companies for shipping thermal coal from mines in U.S. Midwest.
Dykes said Teck coal was being loaded at the time of the accident.
Teck Resources said Friday that it would continue to use Westshore’s remaining berth, but will be shifting capacity to Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver to maintain export volumes.
The company also said it will be exploring options for moving additional tonnage to Pacific Coast Terminals in Port Moody and Ridley Terminals in Prince Rupert while Berth One remains shut for an unknown amount of time.
“Our preliminary assessment is that we will meet or exceed our sales guidance of 6.2 million tonnes for the fourth quarter and, as there is inventory space available at Westshore, we do not expect this incident to have a material impact on coal production for the fourth quarter,” Teck said in a statement.