Calls for change intensify after fatal sinking. “When workers go to sea, they expect to come back to their families,” says NDP transportation critic Taylor Bachrach.

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Dozens of tugboat sinkings in B.C. waters highlight the “pressing need” for improved federal regulations around safety, says the NDP transportation critic.

“The number of incidents involving small tugboats on our coast calls into question whether the current regulations are up to the task,” said Taylor Bachrach, the NDP member of parliament for Skeena-Bulkley Valley. “When workers go to sea, they expect to come back to their families.”

In response to a recent series on tugboat safety, Postmedia received emails from several B.C. mariners and their families concerned about safety standards in the industry.

The calls for better federal regulation have intensified since the sinking of the tugboat Ingenika. In February, captain Troy Pearson and deckhand Charley Cragg died when the tugboat sank in the Gardner Canal near Kitimat. A third man, 19-year-old Zac Dolan, was rescued after he made it to shore. The tug, which was 14.63 gross tons, was towing a barge loaded with construction materials for a work site in Kemano. There was both a gale warning and an icy spray warning in effect that day.

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Charley Cragg, 25, died in February when the tugboat Ingenika sank near Kitimat.
Charley Cragg, 25, died in February when the tugboat Ingenika sank near Kitimat. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

It remains unknown why the Ingenika sank.

Since 2016, there have been 350 accidents involving tugboats or barges in B.C., including 24 sinkings and two fatalities, according to data collected by the Transportation Safety Board.

There are 1,263 tugboats, including boom boats, licensed in B.C., according to Transport Canada’s vessel registration system, more than the Maritime provinces’ combined total of 94, or Ontario and Quebec’s total of 444.

Tugs play a critical role in many coastal industries, including forestry, mining and shipping. Despite this, Canada has fallen behind other countries in terms of regulation, said marine architect Robert Allan, whose Vancouver company, Robert Allan Ltd. Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, designed six of the 14 tugboats that recently helped free the MV Ever Given in the Suez Canal.

After a raft of fatal tugboat sinkings in the 1960s, the federal government created a new set of regulations to govern the industry, setting up a system based on the internal volume of the boat. Tugboats more than 15 gross tons were subjected to annual inspections, which added to maintenance costs and took the boat out of service for a short time, while those under 15 gross tons were not.

“This created huge incentive for owners to build boats just under 15 gross tons,” said Allan. “You began to have a problem of these hurdles becoming what I call ‘barriers to common sense.’”

Transport Canada has considered expanding oversight of smaller tugboats, most recently in 2010. But it decided to go with “self-regulation and best practices and a laissez-faire approach,” said Peter Lahay, national co-ordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation, Canada.

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“After requiring only the laxest of regulations for these dangerous operations, (Transport Canada) basically fails to enforce even those regulations,” he said. “Towboat owners on the West cCoast know they can sail on the cheap in every way and Transport Canada will not bother them unless they have an accident.”

Lahay said the situation rewards “substandard towboat operator” and punishes those that operate by the rules.

“If a company that operates a vessel with a fully certified and well rested crew … bids on a contract to move cargo along the coast, they must compete against a company operating a 12-metre vessel listed as under 15 gross tons, with just two or three under qualified crew, maybe only one of them certified,” he explained.

The Transportation Safety Board has been calling on Transport Canada to make safety management systems (SMS) mandatory on all vessels, including tugboats under 15 gross tons, for almost a decade.

SMS is an internationally recognized framework that allows companies to identify and address safety risks. It can incorporate elements such as safe operating standards, a planned maintenance program, a crew training regime and how to respond to specific emergency situations. Transport Canada already requires SMS for larger vessels.

Other stakeholders, including some tugboat companies, want to see the tug-to-tow ratio regulated so small tugboats cannot tow large barges.

Postmedia requested at interview with federal Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra, but a spokesperson said he was “unable to accommodate” an interview.

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In an emailed statement, Sau Sau Liu said the federal government is working on a number of “new regulatory projects” that will apply to all vessels, including making SMS mandatory. Other proposed updates would change marine personnel regulations. But the schedule for the changes is unclear.

The regulations are “targeted for pre-publication in Part I of the Canada Gazette in fall 2021,” which is the standard process for introducing a new regulation, said Liu. There may also be a comment period and consultation.

Bachrach said Transport Canada should act in the interim.

“If something can be done right now to improve safety, it should be done,” he said. “These boats are operating on our coast every day.”

Bachrach pointed to interim measures enacted by previous transportation minister Marc Garneau to order all trains carrying a significant amount of dangerous goods on federal lines to slow down after a crude oil train derailment in Saskatchewan in February 2020.

The order was made in the interest of safety just a few hours after the derailment, despite anticipated economic impacts. It was later revised after consultation.

“I believe the minister has an opportunity to do something similar here and put some kind of interim measures in place,” said Bachrach. “There’s a history of regulations in the transportation sector that stem from disasters, many that were preventable.”

In the United Kingdom, small workboats, including tugboats, must be inspected.

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“A successful inspection results in issuance of a certificate valid for not more than five years,” noted the Transportation Safety Board in a report following the sinking of the B.C. tugboat Syringa. “Vessels are subject to annual and intermediate examinations conducted out of the water by an authorized person from the certifying authority.”

The United States Coast Guard recently updated its training and inspection regulations for tugboat and towboat companies. In 2016, there were 1,231 towing incidents in the U.S., with more than 121,000 litres of oil spilled, according to coast guard statistics. The new regulations include an exemption for boats under 26 feet unless they’re moving oil or hazardous cargo.

gluymes@postmedia.com

twitter.com/glendaluymes

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