Back from oblivion

I first heard about this story while listening to the broadcasts of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel hearings in Hartley Bay in early March. It’s a story that has stuck in my mind ever since.

Pretty well everybody knows about the sinking of the BC Ferries Queen of the North at Gil Island in British Columbia’s scenic and busy Inside Passage in 2006.  Not everyone knows about another older, more dangerous shipwreck in the same area, some 40 km to the north of Hartley Bay in the Grenville Channel.

This story began in in September 1946—a year and a bit after the end of the Second World War in Europe.  The US transport ship the Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski, a 3,000 ton cargo ship in service to the United States war department sailed out of Seattle harbour bound for Whittier Alaska, carrying army supplies.

Built originally as a Great Lakes cargo carrier, the ship was launched  in 1919 as the Lake Frohna, later was renamed the Ace. It was a steel ship 76 metres in length and 13.5 meters in width. It was carrying a load of bunker fuel,aerial bombs, ammunition, truck axles, and tires.

All was well on the Zalinski as it steamed its way north along the Inside Passage … until the night of the 26th of September. It was stormy that night, with high winds and raining so hard that you could barely see your hand in front of your face. The ship entered Grenville Channel.

Grenville Channel is one of the most spectacular parts of the Inside Passage. The waters are deep and narrow with mountains rising steeply on each side, straight up from tide line to snowy peak.

That September night, the Zalinski crew were not enjoying the view. Apparently, with no radar on board, they were bouncing sound signals off the nearby channel walls in order to navigate—unsuccessfully.  Just south of Lowe Inlet, the ship drove hard into Pitt Island on the west side of the channel ripping open a large gash in the hull. The ship sank in 20 minutes.

This is an eyewitness report from the Vancouver Sun report in 1946:

“Driving rain made it so black we couldn’t even see the bow when we struck,” said winch-operator Bernard Boersema of Everett, Wash.

“The force of the collision broke Nos. 1 and 2 hold clear open – a tear about 40 feet long.” he said.

“As soon as we struck, the mate ordered me to ‘sound’ the bilge water in those two holds.

“There was already about seven feet of water in No. 2 hold and more rushing in like fury. I knew then we were sinking.

“The mate shouted to me to forget about No. 2 hold and abandoned ship.

“I, and some of the others, jumped into No. 1 lifeboat, which had been lowered as soon as the vessel started to founder.”

The US transport ship the Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski known earlier on the Great Lakes as the Ace.

Fortunately, all 48 crew members made it into the lifeboats before the Zalinski sunk. Miserably wet and cold, barely hanging on in high seas for several hours, the crew were picked up from the life boats and from the water by a tug boat, the Sally N., and taken to the cannery town of Butedale on Princess Royal Island. The crew was later taken to Prince Rupert by the Union Steamship passenger ship SS Catala. (And that’s another story.)

The Zalinski went down in the wind and the rain and the darkness. The Channel is 90 metres deep and everyone figured the ship, the bombs, the fuel and everything else had gone for good into the depths.

And so it was for the next five decades … until 2003, when an oil slick was seen in Grenville Channel near Lowe Inlet. The Canadian Coast Guard ship Tanu went to have a look, but as there was no obvious source to be found, there was nothing they could do.

Later that year, a second oil slick was seen by a pilot flying over the area. The patch was  apparently quite thick and had crept up on three miles of shoreline. This time, the Coast Guard began to think the oil could be coming from an old shipwreck.

A remote control submersible was sent down to take a look. And it found a wreck. Navy divers who went down later confirmed that there were bombs still in the hull, and they brought up the ship’s brass bell which confirmed the ship was the Zalinski.

Navy divers with the ship's bell from the wreck of the Zalinski.

The ship is lying upside down, perched on a ledge about 25 metres below the surface of the water, blending in to the marine seascape covered in sediment, barnacles, sponges and seaweed. Bull kelp had established itself on areas of the upturned hull, reaching to the surface.

There is an estimated 700 tonnes of  thick crude bunker oil (150,000 gallons) still sitting in that wreck. And it’s burping out.

As Gitga’at chief Robert Hill told the Joint Review  Panel this spring, “Yeah, well, the rivets popped on it. It was a riveted hull, is what it was. And our people had to try to contain the last spill. And so they’ve done some work, I think, on it. And I don’t know if they’ve secured the vessel, but it’s in a very precarious position right now. Yeah, they used cedar plugs to plug it up.”

Not only that, but Navy divers have confirmed there are at least twelve unexploded 250 kilogram bombs still sitting there too.

The Coast Guard declared the site a hazard in 2004 and has ordered mariners, divers and fishermen to avoid anchoring or fishing within 200 metres of the wreck site. The ferries and cruise boats pass within 300 metres of the hazard site.

Studies and negotiations to clean up the wreck began in 2004. Today, nine years later, according to the Coast Guard mid-year review of 2011-2012 studies are ongoing and reports still pending.The United States government has reportedly been approached to help in cleaning up the wreck. Apparently, the government had also contacted the British navy to draw on their expertise in dealing with unexploded armaments at Scapa Flow, a harbour in the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland. That was where the German army scuttled their fleet at the end of World War II.

The Zalinski is sitting on a ledge above much deeper water. What alarms the Gitga’at people is not only the fear of more serious leakage from the corroding hull, but a much larger disaster if an earthquake should dislodge the wreck and the whole hull would disintegrate releasing all the crude oil into the sea.

Added to the continuing oil leakage from the sunk Queen of the North off Gil Island and the inaction of BC Ferries to deal with the consequences of that accident in “the heart of” Gitga’at food harvesting areas, the people of Hartley Bay are worried and stressed. Never mind the proposed supertankers.

And to add to all our comfort levels: the Canadian Coast Guard conducted an oil spill training exercise in Prince Rupert in 2010. And you know what they used for their “real life scenario”? You won’t believe this: a botched job of fuel removal from the Zalinski.
“The scenario considers a catastrophic release from the Zalinski during oil removal operations,” was how they put it exactly.

I know the Coast Guard people are often heroic and we are glad to have them in our lives, but this was perhaps NOT one of their best moments.

***

This story haunts me. The eeriness of an unseen threat hidden in the depths of such a beautiful, serene and remote place as the Grenville Channel disturbs me.

Hundreds of people sail by enjoying all levels of oblivion in their pursuit of rest and relaxation on the cruise ships. Working people and fishermen travel up and down the channel going about their business, probably not thinking too much about the insidious menace just south of Lowe Inlet on the western shore.

In the face of the failure of corporations and governments to “make right” the wrongs as they have promised, I am both angry and distrustful. The federal government has been dragging its heels for ten years on this one.

The fact that consequences from marine accidents are revealed after such a long passage of time, when those involved are long gone, causes me concern.

The Zalinski story of risk and consequence is only one tale of many. Over the years, some things like navigation aids and methods of ship construction improve. Some things don’t: like government and  corporations who don’t follow through on promises; the weather; the rocks; and the errors of human beings at the helm.

We on the West Coast have solid, proven reasons to know that permitting super tankers in these waters is a very wrong and stupid idea.

Grenville Channel near the wreck of the American warship Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski.

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About blue sea sky

By Cynthia Jones Davies, writer researcher who lives on Haida Gwaii.
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4 Responses to Back from oblivion

  1. Daniel Rabu says:

    How about preventing the Americans from using Grenville Channel until they clean up their mess! I had never heard of this story and nor have I read anything about not anchoring near the site (not that I would even know where that is) so what is protecting me or others from anchoring in that area? Could an anchor clunking down on its deck cause the bombs to go off? This is absolute irresponsible behavior from both Canadian and American Governments. Clean this mess up before someone dies or all of that oil escapes.

  2. Richard Bellman says:

    Well there you go American governments and companies alike are not to be trusted, a prime example of why Embridge should not happen.

    • blue sea sky says:

      The ship is in Canadian waters so the Canadian government shares some responsibility too, in my view.
      Also the Queen of the North belonged to a British Columbia corporation.

  3. sa says:

    Thank you for the enlightening article. I agree that to allow such potentially hazardous materials unfettered passage through our ‘almost’ pristine wilderness is a great dis-service to ALL our future children – those of the elite AND those of the people. We all share this house soon we will start getting along

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