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Tug carrying up to 22,000 litres of fuel capsizes in Fraser River off Vancouver


VANCOUVER — The smell of diesel filled the air as crews worked to recover a capsized tugboat that may have spilled as much as 22,000 litres of the fuel in the Fraser River between Vancouver and Richmond on Monday night.

Canadian Coast Guard spokesman Dan Bate said it's unknown what caused the George H. Ledcor tug to capsize around 10 p.m. Monday, just east of Vancouver International Airport.

There were four people aboard the vessel and all were rescued by the crew on a nearby tug, Bate said.

The capsized vessel is part of a gravel tug-and-tow operation and was towing a gravel barge at the time. The vessel was about three-quarters submerged and had been secured to pilings, Bate said.

While the tug's fuel capacity is 22,000 litres, he said crews are still assessing the total volume of the fuel spill.

It's unclear what the impact of the spill will be on the ecosystem, which is at the north arm of the salmon-bearing Fraser River.

"Right now it's too early to see what that looks like, obviously it will depend on the quantities and actions that are taken," Bate said.

Booms and absorbent pads have been placed around the vessel by the coast guard and Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, the organization responsible for responding to oil spills along the B.C. coast.

Michael Lowry with Western Canada Marine Response said the company has been retained by Ledcor, which operates the tug, and about 15 bags of the absorbent pads have already been collected.

He said the pads are put in place when there is a "light sheen" on the water, adding it was impossible to tell how much diesel had been soaked up. 

David Hoff with Ledcor said divers have been down to see the tug and assess how the company would recover the vessel.

The company said the recovery would happen on Wednesday.

"For safety reasons an additional, larger crane and barge will be used to lift the tug. Spill containment equipment and personnel will remain on-site until the lift is completed," it said on Twitter.

Other responding agencies include the B.C. Environment Ministry, City of Vancouver, Musqueam First Nation and Transport Canada.

In a statement, the First Nation said the fuel spill is "of great concern" to the Musqueam people, who have been fishing the biggest salmon return in years on the Fraser River alongside other fishermen.

Musqueam has deployed staff to monitor the containment and cleanup, it said, however Chief Wayne Sparrow expressed frustration that the First Nation has done so without any federal support through the $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan.

"The impact of what has happened with this immediate situation is an indication of what is to come as far as additional tanker traffic, barges and pollution. We are not in opposition to Canada's plan on industrialization of the river, but we need to be there at the front of any kind of emergency response, period," Sparrow said in the statement.

The City of Vancouver said in a release that it was closing the beach at Fraser River Park until further notice, as the park is upstream from the area where the tugboat capsized. The City of Richmond also closed the shoreline of McDonald Beach Park as a precaution.

Earlier today, Vancouver's environmental protection branch assessed Deering Island, near where the tug capsized, and found no signs of sheen and no smell, the release said. It added the city is continuing to monitor the situation as the tide and conditions change.

The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version based on information from the Canadian Coast Guard said the tug capsized early Tuesday and was not towing a barge.

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