After two years, a widely-opposed shipbreaking operation in Union Bay, BC continues and legal action appears stalled. What gives?
April 27, 2023
After two years of conflict with its neighbours, the regional district, and the Province, Deep Water Recovery Ltd. carries on shipbreaking in Baynes Sound.
It’s been more than ten months since the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) filed a Notice of Civil Claim in the Supreme Court of British Columbia against Deep Water Recovery Ltd. (DWR), seeking assistance from the court to stop DWR’s shipbreaking operations in Union Bay.
A press release issued by the CVRD on April 25, 2022, stated, “The Court process is expected to take several months or longer before the issue is resolved.”
Yet almost a year later, the CVRD is no closer to getting its injunction. In fact, it still hasn’t even had its first day in court. Meanwhile, DWR continues to dismantle old vessels at its site across from Denman Island, disregarding CVRD zoning and numerous warnings from BC’s Environment and Climate Change Strategy Ministry.
DWR sits beside Baynes Sound, a federally recognized Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area (EBSA). Its marshes and beaches provide habitat and food for many species, including herring, a species crucial to the Pacific food web.
A group of Union Bay residents began sounding the alarm soon after the operation started up in December 2020. What began as concerns about noise from the site, and fear that toxic materials might leach into Baynes Sound from DWR’s activities, has become a crusade of sorts as the group has learned more about the problems posed by shipbreaking as it is practiced globally.
“We have formed an official society to actively work on the protection of Baynes Sound, and to hold the governments accountable,” says Marilynne Manning, a Concerned Citizens of Baynes Sound (CCOBS) member. The group is now advocating for the implementation of strong regulations for safe shipbreaking in Canada.
More questions than answers
CCOBS members say they have put in thousands of hours corresponding with the many provincial and federal ministries involved in this issue. They’ve combed through voluminous correspondence obtained through a Freedom of Information request. They’ve reached out to politicians and environmental groups, many of whom have taken up the cause.
Yet for the members of CCOBS – and for anyone who tries to dig deeply into this issue – there remain more questions than answers, and all too often, platitudes instead of meaningful actions.
Provincial compliance officers have visited Deep Water Recovery multiple times and issued three warnings and one advisory for being out of compliance with the Environmental Management Act. A ministry spokesperson told the Sentinel that it can use a number of escalating enforcement tools when addressing issues around non-compliance: “If required, the ministry will take further enforcement action to ensure compliance, including pollution prevention orders.”
In May 2022, the DWR’s lawyer sent cease-and-desist letters to several members of CCOBS, warning that Deep Water Recovery would take legal action against them if they continued to speak out.
The ECCS’ tools sound impressive: if convicted, an offender could face “a fine not exceeding $1,000,000 or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both.” But to date nothing has happened to DWR other than more warnings and, in January 2023, an information order requiring the company to submit monthly quality reports to the ministry.
One obvious drawback to the information order remedy is that it requires time to implement. A less obvious one is the question of whether DWR will comply with it: since its arrival in Union Bay, the company has often failed to follow CVRD and provincial protocols.
DWR’s disregard for established procedures and regulations doesn’t inspire confidence in parties who are concerned about the possibility of toxic materials leaching into the water and air from its shipbreaking activities. In December 2021, the K’ómoks First Nation, who value the area for economic, food, social, and ceremonial uses, called DWR’s activities “an environmental disaster waiting to happen.”
DWR sits beside Baynes Sound, a federally recognized Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area (EBSA). Its marshes and beaches provide habitat and food for many species, including herring, a species crucial to the Pacific food web. “It’s one of the most important ecological areas we’ve got on the West Coast of BC,” says biologist and SFU professor Leah Bendell, who has long advocated for better protection for the sound.
“What’s needed is razor-sharp decision making”
The CVRD has determined that the property’s Industrial Marine zoning does not allow shipbreaking activities, but legal action against DWR appears to be stalled.
Interim injunctions can usually be heard very quickly in the BC Supreme Court. For example, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority recently received a successful resolution in its civil case against an unauthorized shipbreaking operation in less than three months. Its notice of civil claim was filed in late November 2020 and heard in January 2021. The decision was handed down February 10, 2021.
Carla Conkin is an environmental lawyer representing CCOBS, with the support of West Coast Environmental Law and the Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund. She is frustrated with the lack of action among levels of government that should be working in lockstep to protect the public interest.
Site before shipbreaking operation | photo courtesy of CCOBS
Site after shipbreaking operation began | photo courtesy of CCOBS
There is a suite of enforcement options open to the CVRD and province, including fast-tracking injunctive relief to expedite the court process and force DWR to cease operations until the case is heard, says Conkin. “What’s needed is razor-sharp decision making,” she adds, noting that when a company is acting without regional district authority, heavy enforcement is warranted. Otherwise, she adds, government is just reinforcing the continued infractions.
Alana Mullaly, General Manager of Planning and Development Services for the CVRD, says, “We are anxiously awaiting a court date.… In the meantime, we maintain our position that the shipbreaking use is not permitted on this property.”
Mark Jurisich, DWR’s owner, did not respond to requests for an interview. In May 2022, the company’s lawyer sent cease-and-desist letters to several members of CCOBS, warning that Deep Water Recovery would take legal action against them if they continued to speak out.
Meanwhile, as this issue goes to press, the annual herring spawn has begun in Baynes Sound; any kind of spill or pollution event could have disastrous consequences.
Jen Groundwater is a writer, editor, and nonfiction author living in the Comox Valley. See also “(Ship) Breaking Bad,” Gavin MacRae, Watershed Sentinel April-May 2022.
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