On a sunny August afternoon in 2010, the Clipper Adventurer hit an underwater rock shelf near Kugluktuk, Nunavut, carrying 128 Adventure Canada passengers and 69 crew.
The nearest ship capable of responding to the incident was the coast guard icebreaker CCGS Amundsen, 500 kilometres away in the Beaufort Sea, which arrived on scene the following day.
Adventure Canada was fined nearly half a million dollars in 2017 for environmental damage caused by 13 tanks carrying fuel, water and sludge that breached during the incident.
The fines were levied after the company unsuccessfully sued the Canadian government for $13 million over what they claimed was an unmarked shelf — it wasn’t marked on the ship’s charts, having only been discovered three years prior.
“It’s a part of the world where you do your best, but there are blank spots on the map,” Adventure Canada’s owner, Matthew Swan, told CBC at the time of the accident.
It wasn’t the first, nor the last marine incident in the Canadian North; just two years later, the fuel tanker M/V Nanny ran aground in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut. It hit bottom again — in the same inlet — two years later. Then, in 2016, a 67 metre fishing boat was torn open by ice off Baffin Island and had to limp across Davis Strait to Greenland.
Shipping and tourism are ramping up across the region, and more incidents are inevitable. That has local communities looking askance at their meagre response plans and capabilities.
“I think it’s widely accepted and widely known that if there was a major spill in the Arctic, the consequence would be devastating,” Andrew Dumbrille, shipping specialist with the World Wildlife Fund, told DeSmog Canada.
Sea ice, unforgiving weather, remoteness and sparse charts are just a few of the complications that responders would face in the event of a spill — challenges that would be daunting for seasoned responders, and much more so for untrained locals.
Dumbrille and a large group, including members of the Coast Guard and other government agencies, spent five days in Resolute in March, working with locals to develop a spill response plan tailored to that community, so that in the case of an accident, the community could contain the damage before it eviscerated the hunting and fishing many community members depend on.
“If there was a spill, the community doesn’t know what to do,” Dumbrille said. “There isn’t a plan in place, there isn’t training, there isn’t updating of any kind of plan or any way to mobilize the community around an event or a spill. So you hear that a lot. They don’t necessarily know who to call or what to do about it.”
Currently the community has a shipping container with some equipment to deal with a spill, but it’s not regularly tested and people in the community aren’t trained in using it.
It’s one of what the Coast Guard calls “environmental response caches,” of which there are 22 across the Arctic. The nearest Coast Guard base, however, is in Hay River, Northwest Territories, more than 1,500 kilometres up the Mackenzie River from the Arctic Ocean.
In an emailed response to questions from DeSmog Canada, the Coast Guard said that as part of the Oceans Protection Plan it was training and creating jobs for Indigenous communities across the Arctic.
That includes expanding the Coast Guard Auxiliary, made up of volunteers who are on standby to respond to incidents like search-and-rescue, though it is not clear if the auxiliary has a dedicated role in spill response.
The Coast Guard also says it’s working with its American counterparts to develop safer shipping routes through the Arctic, which would try to avoid risk to sensitive areas.
Dumbille says that was a concern raised during community meetings in Resolute: making sure that ship traffic avoids the most at-risk areas, like calving grounds for whales.
“Why don’t we make sure the ships transit away from our most important whale calving areas and migration routes, so that if there is a spill, then it would be far off from those important areas?” Dumbrille says.
The community also emphasized that what they really want is the capacity to respond to an emergency themselves, and to not have to wait for a ship that could be days away. That means proper equipment, regular training and paid responders.
The Clipper Adventurer was part of a much larger growing trend when it comes to ship traffic in the Canadian Arctic.
Between 1984 and 2004, a total of 23 commercial cruise ships transited the Northwest Passage, according to the Arctic Council. But in 2017 alone, Coast Guard numbers show 93 vessels made voyages in the Arctic: 19 passenger ships and 74 cargo ships and tankers.
“It’s not the Panama Canal,” Dumbrille says.
Numbers are still low, but with projects like the Mary River mine, one of the world’s most northernmost mines, adding bulk carriers to the equation (72 voyages in 2017), as well as fishing vessels (142) and tugs (42) now plying the waters of the Arctic, it’s becoming a crowded place.
Worldwide, there were 55 “incidents” in the Arctic in 2014, including one “total loss,” according to a report by insurer Allianz Global. A decade earlier, in 2005, there were three.
Currently, spill response plans are not tailored to each community; they’re developed at a regional scale. Dumbrille says the Resolute plan is still in development, and will act as a template that can be exported and adapted to communities across the Arctic.