U.S. salvage firm hired to assess shipwreck leaking oil off Vancouver Island

The federal government is calling on the services of a U.S. ship-salvaging firm as officials continue to grapple with a historic shipwreck that’s been leaking oil for months off Vancouver Island.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan announced Wednesday that Ottawa had awarded a $7-million contract to the Florida-based Resolve Marine Group.

The Fort Lauderdale company previously made headlines for its work on the BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the refloating of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off Italy in 2012.

The company is expected to begin an undersea assessment of the Vancouver Island wreck in mid-April.

The 150-metre cargo ship MV Schiedyk ran aground and sank in Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in January 1968.

The wreck lay dormant for decades until last fall when a two-kilometre oil slick was suddenly visible on the ocean’s surface near Bligh Island, part of an ecologically sensitive marine park.

At last count on Sunday, marine spill response crews had recovered more than 33 tonnes of oil from the water’s surface. Coast Guard officials and marine responders estimate the current rate of the oil leak at between one and four litres per hour, with occasional increases to between 11 and 13 litres per hour due to weather and ocean currents.

The undersea assessment is expected to reveal how much bunker oil remains on board the sunken ship, which is resting upside down in approximately 120 metres of water. It will also determine where in the ship’s hull the oil is leaking from and, if possible, temporarily seal the leaks to prevent further environmental damage.

Marine responders from multiple federal, provincial and Indigenous agencies say the location of the ship’s fuel tanks is a bit of a mystery. The ship was converted from steam to diesel power and the fuel tanks may have been moved from what’s shown in the vessel’s original plans.

There is a risk of disturbing the ship during the technical assessment, causing a large release of oil, officials are warning. Spill responders will be on the water to closely monitor the vessel during the assessment process, says the multi-agency Bligh Island Shipwreck Unified Command.

“Wrecked, abandoned and hazardous vessels pose a serious threat to our natural environment,” the fisheries and oceans minister said in a statement Wednesday. “I’m thrilled to announce that the Coast Guard will now work with Resolve Marine Group to address the threat posed by the MV Schiedyk to waters off the coast of Vancouver Island.”

Resolve Marine Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the assessment operation.

The Canadian transport vessel Atlantic Condor, which recently ferried two new Coast Guard vessels from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, will serve as the operational platform during the wreck assessment.

Under international maritime law, the ruined MV Schiedyk is still the legal property of its operator, Holland America, but Transport Canada has previously said the company is not liable for the cleanup cost due to a statute of limitations on the federal Maritime Liability Act.