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A Vancouver Island community is sounding the alarm about the lack of federal and provincial regulations targetting boat-dismantling operations that may leak pollutants like asbestos and heavy metals into Canadian waters.

Several residents of Union Bay, B.C., located about 180 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, voiced their opposition to one such local operation during a rally on Sunday, decrying the lack of specific rules that would prevent boat-dismantling on the shores of nearby Baynes Sound.

The rally's organizers, The Concerned Citizens of Baynes Sound, say Deep Water Recovery has been dismantling barges at a Union Bay site for the last two years, and there is fear among local residents that the operation may release hydrocarbons, raw sewage and cadmium into the marine environment. Baynes Sound is where 50 per cent of B.C.'s harvested shellfish come from and is also the location of the last commercial coastal herring fishery in the Georgia Straight, they added.

But Canada has no federal rules specifically regulating shipbreaking, and the B.C. Ministry of Environment says in a statement that Deep Water has the necessary permits as a company operating in the "commercial waste management or waste disposal industry."

Deep Water Recovery declined The Canadian Press's request for comment.

Union Bay resident and rally organizer Ray Rewcastle says the community was shocked to find out the lack of regulation on boat dismantling, but added they are even more perturbed that municipal, provincial and federal governments had little understanding about shipbreaking as an industry before residents spoke up.

"It's not something that should be done in an area like Baynes Sound," said Rewcastle, who estimated about 200 people attended Sunday's rally. "It should be done in an industrial port like the Port of Vancouver, Esquimalt or Nanaimo... deep water ports that, basically, you can have 100 per cent containment with dry docking."

Shipbreaking is considered hazardous because of the toxic substances present within a vessel, which may include asbestos, heavy metals and hydrocarbons.

The Comox Valley Regional District filed a notice of civil claim against Deep Water in April 2022 in B.C. Supreme Court, seeking an order to prevent the dismantling of vessels at the Union Bay site due to zoning bylaw violations.

Rally decries lack of federal regulation targetting #shipbreaking operations. #CDNPoli #BC #UnionBay #BaynesSound

In its legal response, Deep Water and its co-defendent Union Bay Industries said its activities "fall within the uses permitted" under the zoning bylaws.

Deep Water also said municipal officials have conducted visits since March 2020 while barges were either being transported to or disassembled at the site, and have not raised any concerns.

"At all material times, the Plaintiff has had ample knowledge of Deep Water's operations and activities, including multiple visits by the Plaintiff's staff and elected officials, after which several representations were made confirming Deep Water's compliance with the Zoning bylaw," the legal response read.

The B.C. Ministry of Environment issued a statement saying it has issued three warnings and one advisory against Deep Water after site visits and water sample analysis, including discharging waste into the environment without authorization.

In January, the province also ordered Deep Water to set up a monthly monitoring and sampling plan - and the submitted data is currently under review.

"If required, the ministry will take further enforcement action to ensure compliance, including pollution prevention orders," the statement said.

Courtenay-Alberni NDP MP Gord Johns, who represents Union Bay federally and spoke at Sunday's rally, said Ottawa is currently holding consultations "until the fall" on improving Canada's shipbreaking laws.

Johns said it is crucial that such laws are put in place as soon as possible, since what happened at Union Bay can happen elsewhere in the country if nothing changes.

He said the federal government has not done enough on other fronts, such as only requiring a self-reporting, voluntary certificate for hazardous material entering Canada on foreign vessels.

But for the residents of Union Bay, Johns said the province and federal government must "use all the tools they have" to make sure companies like Deep Water are following existing regulations.

"When it was raised that we don't want to be a dumping ground for international vessels, it's too late," Johns said of the federal response so far. "You know the vessels are coming into Canada that couldn't even be brought into Mexico or the United States because we have such weak regulations... And here you've got a company doing business in a community, and they have not gained social license."

The B.C. Supreme Court has yet to set a date to hear the case between the Comox Valley Regional District and Deep Water.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2023.

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