BC Ferries: Apologies and a Beach Clean-up

No less a person than President and CEO of BC Ferries, Mark Collins, came to Denman on Tuesday, August 20th to discuss the delamination of the ferry cable that has spewed strips of plastic around Denman and Hornby. He came with a team of twenty BC Ferries volunteers to help clean up the shore. No one could complain that the Islands were not getting attention.

The meeting at the Denman Activity Centre was hosted by the Denman Island Ferry Advisory Committee.

ADIMS (Association of Denman Island Marine Stewards) had a map showing how the twisted strips of yellow and blue plastic have spread right around the islands including Hornby and down Baynes Sound. It is, pointed out Liz Johnson of ADIMS, but a tiny fraction of the plastic waste from the commercial shellfish industry every year, but the issue presented a great opportunity, not just to bring the problem of microplastics and beach fouling to broader public attention, but also to involve BC Ferries more directly in long-term remediation efforts.

BC Ferries meets with the Ferry Advisory Committee @ D.A.C.

Collins certainly knows Denman’s ferry issues well as the executive who spearheaded the introduction of the cable ferry and a veteran of many evenings of on-island meetings at DAC in the process. He made no bones about the fact that the way the Baynes Sound Connector was brought in was a public relations disaster, so much so that it changed the way BC Ferries now engages with the public on such substantial issues as a new ferry. Hitherto, BC Ferries tended to come up with a plan and then try to sell it. They have moved to a more proactive model of obtaining community license with customer consultation in the development of plans. Despite his efforts to persuade BC Ferries to take a different approach at the time, Collins acknowledged a residual legacy of public distrust on Denman. He did his best to let the meeting know that BC Ferries is listening and was here to help.

He began by taking full responsibility on behalf of BC Ferries for the delamination issue and apologized for the initial explanation. On that score, he was reminded by Liz Johnson of ADIMS that it was a mistake to have initially ascribed the problem to what they thought was a crab trap because this made it look as if locals were to blame when in actual fact, crab and other fishers are very careful to avoid fouling the cables. Islanders were really upset to be blamed when the problem all along has been the shellfish industry. In fact, the cable ferry’s predecessor carried a special tool to deal with industry plastics. It then turned out, on examination by the meeting when it was passed around, that the artefact in question wasn’t a crab trap remnant at all but a piece of commercial purse netting used to raise baskets of shellfish for processing.

The cable delaminated, Collins explained, because of an additive added to the plastic cable cover. The problem had already come to their attention a year ago. but blew up last month A ball of the shredded plastic had even caused a fire in the cable housing. BC Ferries suspects this is a product defect and is pursuing the manufacturer. There are at least other seven cable ferries in Canada who have had the same problem.

The purpose of the lamination is not so much corrosion control as noise reduction. For that reason, other cable ferries have simply done away with the plastic lamination and run the bare steel cable, accepting the added noise. BC Ferries is prepared to look at that option but wants to hear from their engineers that it doesn’t create another problem that will come back to bite them. It was pointed out that water transmits noise very readily, and for those living on the shore near the terminals, the ferry noise never goes away as it is. Collins said that how much extra noise there would be running bare steel-on-steel on the Baynes Sound Connector, no one could yet say at this point, but BC is a world leader in marine noise reduction, so noise would be more of an issue here than elsewhere.

The Baynes Sound Connector is propelled by three cables. Each one has a life of six to ten years. Because it is a passenger vessel, BC Ferries replaces one cable each year just to be safe. There are inspection criteria such as broken strands. Replacement of a cable can be done quickly, usually overnight, although Collins did not know why a recent replacement was scheduled during the day, with an interruption in ferry service.

Apart from these explanations, the main agenda was to get BC Ferries buy-in to the microplastic reduction program by becoming an active participant in the Baynes Sound/ Hornby shoreline clean-up. Collins arrived with a team of twenty volunteers to participate in a clean-up after the meeting, so the immediate cooperation was there. He also told the meeting that BC Ferries participates throughout its coastal service area in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup (a national World Wildlife Fund program with corporate sponsors). BC Ferries has also banned the use of single-use plastics throughout its fleet.

All well and good, but ADIMS wanted more. They asked for skiffs to help in the annual beach clean-up for those parts of the shore that are harder to access. Collins said the BC Ferries had one, and possibly several work boats in the area that could be made available.

ADIMS also put out a suggestion for funding. A concrete proposal for funding was put out by Joan Weigel from Hornby, who is responsible for cleaning the beaches for BC Parks. They sought support from BC Ferries support for a proposed eco-levy, addressed to Nanaimo NDP MLA Sheila Maclomson, of $5.00 on every oyster basket recovered from the shoreline. Weigel pointed out that they already get 10 cents for every beverage can they collect.

Inevitably, other issues were raised. Was the old ferry dock going to be allowed to deteriorate without any provision for a back-up ferry? Collins said that the dock would indeed be decommissioned and eventually demolished. BC Ferries does not normally call up relief ships because it is usually cheaper and quicker to repair the boat on station. The cable ferry, however, cannot be replaced so a relief ship is kept at Buckley Bay, which is unusual.

From the point of mechanical reliability (which, Collins ruefully admitted, was not as meaningful to customers as trip reliability), the Baynes Sound Connector is 99.96% efficient, (a statistic greeted with predictable scorn after a breakdown yesterday left hundreds of customers sweltering in a long line up). The Connector is simpler to maintain, with only one engine to repair. But when it does breakdown, sailings suffer. It’s a trade-off with the older technology. The Quinitsa had more breakdowns but fewer service interruptions because, with four engines, there was a high level of redundancy while also being much more expensive to run and maintain.

Part of the sailing reliability problem is the increase in overall ferry traffic which Collins said is up an astonishing 18% over three years. As for ferry capacity, there was nothing to be done without changing the BC Ferries contract with the government which allows only 45 vehicles per trip for both ferries. This figure is based on AEQ (Automobile Equivalent) which is a standard vehicle measure of 6.1 x 2.6 meters, roughly equal to a full size family vehicle).

The meeting adjourned to the beach cleanup which focused on the Baynes Sound coast of Denman. The clean up teams were coordinated by Liz Johnson and the BC ferries team coordinator, Mika Desloges, Manager of Corporate Social Responsibility for BC Ferries. Groups were dropped at beach accesses along the entire shore to collect piles of debris of all sorts., not just ferry plastic ADIMs was sure that at least two tons would be collected.

Collins reaffirmed the support of BC Ferries for the annual cleanup just before the team left the island.

BC Ferries volunteers came from all parts of the coast. Courtney Smaha (L) and Colleen Hanlan (R) stand before a pile of beach debris, most of it from the shellfish industry, that will be tagged for pickup in the September clean up.


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