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Dispute in B.C. reveals cracks in Canada’s shipbreaking regulations

When Mary Reynolds started flying her camera-equipped drone over a small stretch of Vancouver Island shoreline she landed in the middle of a fight between local activists and a company that dismantles old watercraft.

The 71-year-old’s videos, posted on her blog, showed how Deep Water Recovery was taking apart old barges and other vessels at its site in Union Bay, B.C. — a violation, say activists, of regional and provincial zoning regulations, that endangers an environmentally sensitive area rich with oysters.

Locals are upset that Deep Water Recovery has continued operating, despite a cease-and-desist order from the province. Deep Water and some of its people were, in turn, upset by Reynolds’s many flyovers. 

One time, she alleges in a civil suit, a “volatile and out of control” man snatched her drone out of the air and confronted her, yelling obscenities and calling her a troublemaker. 

“I came back with a mouthful at him,” Reynolds told CBC News with a laugh. 

“It’s just. It’s bizarre. It’s absolutely bizarre,” she said of the June 11 incident. 

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Mary Reynolds flew her drone over the shipbreaking site for a friend, gathering footage of the operation. (Robert Kerr)

Reynolds says her drone was returned to her porch three days later, missing a memory card.

In a counterclaim, company director Mark Jurisich denies Reynolds’s accusations, alleging she engaged in a “malicious campaign” of trespassing and harassment, trying to shut down his business. 

Those are just a few of the accusations traded over the last few years between the company and local activists who don’t want shipbreaking to continue in their backyard. It’s an industry known globally as having the potential to pollute shorelines with harmful substances like asbestos and PCBs and for which, experts warn, Canada needs to establish clear laws. 

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Legal experts say the dispute has revealed gaps in Canadian law around shipbreaking, which can end up being handled by regional governments. (Curt Petrovich/CBC)

The Concerned Citizens of Baynes Sound (CCOBS) has been lobbying against Deep Water Recovery not long after they saw the first vessels being dismantled two years ago on the shores of nearby Baynes Sound, the channel that runs between Vancouver Island and Denman Island.

“It’s an ecological area that needs protection,” said Ray Rewcastle, CCOBS president.

“We pride ourselves on our shorelines, why would we even allow this to happen?” 

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Local activist Ray Rewcastle says the shoreline near Union Bay is an ‘ecological area that needs protection.’ (Curt Petrovich/CBC)

‘Mish-mash’ of jurisdictions

Environmental lawyer Carla Conkin says CCOBS is fighting a “sort of do it yourself” operation that’s breaking down barges and B.C. ferries on the beach without a dry dock or other internationally accepted safety protocols for dismantling ships to prevent pollution or escaped toxins.

Conkin says the site also disturbed a creek, and there were concerns about workers living on site in a trailer.

“These guys are flying by the seat of their pants on the beach, basically dismantling major sized vessels,” she said.

“No one pays attention to what happens to ships when they die and have to be dealt with.”

Deep Water Recovery denies the allegations.

Neither Jurisich nor his lawyer agreed to interview requests from CBC News. 

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Old ships anchored in Union Bay at the Deep Water Recovery site on May 10. (Curt Petrovich/CBC)

Jurisich recently told The Tyee he is filling a vital role in the marine recycling industry and that he has always followed the rules. He told the online magazine that Deep Water has has dismantled 13 or 14 vessels.

His lawyer, in that same article, vowed to “vigorously defend” the company.

Conkin says part of the problem in Union Bay is the complex “mish mash” of levels of government involved.

‘Pretty slippery’

The site is overseen by the province, which handles the shoreline, while the regional district oversees the high part of the beach. The federal government, meanwhile, oversees vessels, transport and the environment.

Conkin says Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) is “ill-equipped” to deal with shipbreaking issues and, after reviewing how the site’s usage has changed, says she believes the province was manipulated.

“It’s pretty slippery,” she said. 

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Vessels are seen docked at Deep Water Recovery on Aug. 15. (Submitted by Mary Reynolds)

Deep Water Recovery arrived when it took over a company called Union Bay Industries, and its 30-year log-salvaging licence. 

But then the company shifted into ship dismantling, asking in 2019 for B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development to allow the moving and storage of vessels for repair and recycling.

Instead provincial regulators worked with the company and wrote it a new licence allowing the movement of ships over the foreshore so they can be dismantled in the higher portion of the site — which falls under regional government jurisdiction. That company’s lease over the land expires in 2038.

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Workers carry a rope line to fasten a decommissioned ship at the Alang shipyard in the western Indian state of Gujarat, on March 27, 2015. (Amit Dave/Reuters)

Deep Water “stepped into the shoes of that log-sorting company and then slipped their way through to getting lease amendments to allow for shipbreaking,” said Conkin.

“The company has been capitalizing on the different levels of government and how they’re not co-ordinating with each other.”

Canada has no federal shipbreaking rules. The industry here is small, but key in countries like Turkey, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which feed the recycled steel back into their economies.

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A worker uses a cutting torch to dismantle the hull of a barge at the Galloo ship recycling plant in Ghent, Europe’s largest ship recycling plant, in 2015. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Canadian owners used to send their old vessels overseas, but towing has become expensive and environmental rules now limit some exports.

Transport Canada says countrywide regulations are under consideration. But in the meantime, it also lists a total of 47,321 Canadian-registered vessels, — including 3,054 large ships, over 100 gross tonnage — that at some point will all need to be scrapped.

A March 2021 report commissioned by Transport Canada says Canada is far short of the capacity needed to deal with vessels reaching end of life between 2021 and 2030.

The industry is high-risk and expensive — deconstruction of one passenger ferry can cost more than $2 million, says Wayne Elliott, founder of Marine Recycling Corp., Canada’s largest shipbreaker.

His company operates a shipyard in Campbell River, B.C., and is setting up a new site in Port Mellon.

He says he considered setting up at the Union Bay site, but skipped it given the ecologically sensitive location and proximity to people’s homes.

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A barge crashed into Vancouver’s seawall during November 2021 storm and ran aground on Sunset Beach where it still sits, a visible reminder of the need for more ship salvage and dismantling experts in Canada. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“That made us decide it wasn’t worth going after,” said Elliott.

One international advocacy group says Canada should halt all shipbreaking that does not involve a dry dock to contain contaminants.

Belgium-based NGO Shipbreaking Platform says Deep Water Recovery’s plan to dismantle the NOAAS Miller Freeman — a former U.S. research vessel — poses hazards as the ship is rife with toxic paint and asbestos.

Nicola Mulinaris of NGO says what’s happening in Union Bay is “really shocking” and a good case to strengthen industry standards in Canada.

The province issued a cease-and-desist order on Feb. 17, demanding Deep Water stop all shipbreaking activities. But that didn’t happen.

Likewise, the CVRD on April 14 filed a notice of civil claim to halt the operation, alleging a zoning violation. 

But the company continued to dismantle ships.

This process is still ongoing in court.

By Aug. 24 regional officials said they were seeking a permanent injunction to halt the operations. 

In his response to the injunction, Jurisich alleges that the region knew of the company’s intention to ship-break and only reversed approval in “bad faith” for political reasons.

The Comox Valley Regional District declined comment for this story. The K’ómoks First Nation, whose traditional territory Deep Water is operating on, also declined comment, but in an earlier statement said the site is “an environmental disaster waiting to happen.”

The Environment Ministry said in a statement it is “continuing to investigate” concerns about pollution at Union Bay, but officials did not agree to be interviewed. 

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This Union Bay site on Vancouver Island’s east side, north of Denman Island, was a log-sorting operation for 30 years. (Curt Petrovich/CBC)

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