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First Nation says container debris cleanup on Vancouver Island beaches still an 'emergency'

Debris continues to surface on Vancouver Island beaches after shipping containers fell off the Zim Kingston.

A massive effort to clean up debris littered over Vancouver Island's remote beaches is still underway as more materials surface. 

In October, more than 100 shipping containers went missing from the Zim Kingston during a storm. Some containers even caught fire while on the vessel, which was just off the coast of Vancouver Island.

Some of the containers have washed up on the remote traditional territory of the Quatsino First Nation (QFN) and near Cape Scott Provincial Park, spilling debris all over the beaches. 

"For them to come all the way up the island and come ashore on our territory, it tells you just how strong that ocean is,” says Cary-Lee Calder, Quatsino First Nation band manager.

Members of the Quatsino First Nation have been cleaning up the beach and are working in collaboration with the ship’s owner. 

"It’s been around the clock,” says Calder. "Part of my job is to make sure the impact to the QFN is at the forefront of their mind every day.”

The remote beaches are sacred to the First Nation. Every day, Calder is gathering Quatsino band members to go out and clean up. 

"We do have Guardians that work within our nation and we do have our SAR team out there, our youth are very dedicated, our people are dedicated to making sure our territory remains clean and that we can access our traditional foods,” she says.

On most days, a group of seven to 12 people will head out to the area. Some of the members will comb the beaches and put the debris into bags while others ride in helicopters and assist with clipping the bags to the aircraft.

"They are in a very remote area. It takes quite a long time to get there. You can get there by boat; however, you can’t get on the shore from a boat, so it’s either helicopter in or travelling in by a logging road,” she says.

Getting to the Cape Palmerston Beach parking lot takes about an hour and a half. From there, it's another 30 minutes to hike to the debris site. 

"The hike is treacherous there are certain aspects that get more challenging than others, so ensuring that our folks are physically fit and able to manage the terrain and have the proper gear and that they are physically capable to do that is important,” Calder tells Glacier Media. 

On the beach, fridges, paddleboards, plastic blow-up unicorns, rubber boots and Styrofoam have been found. 

“Lots of Styrofoam, pieces of Styrofoam... the fact that it floats and never goes away is challenging to pick up and it is overwhelming because it’s like picking up sand,” says Calder.

Thousands of books lost?

A Vancouver Island book publisher is waiting to find out the fate of 15,000 books that were onboard the Zim Kingston.

Andrew Wooldridge, the publisher of Orca Books Publishers, was notified by the printer that five books, 15,000 copies, were on the vessel. 

“We don’t know what’s happened to them. Either they may have gone overboard, they may have burned or they may still be on the boat,” he says.

The vessel is expected to arrive in Vancouver "some time soon," but they won’t know if the books are still onboard for weeks. 

“They’re all paperback edition of books in our Orca Footprint series,” says Wooldridge. "Three of them are by one author, Michelle Mulder, who is a Victoria author. The two others are by Kari Jones, who is a Victoria author as well and Nikki Tate, who lived on the island for years but now lives in Alberta.”

The books are intended for middle-grade readers and focus on the environment and social justice. 

Where are the other missing shipping containers?

A Vancouver Island-based environmental group that has been on standby since the fire on the Zim Kingston has now been asked to help with the cleanup. 

The executive director of Living Oceans Society says a crew of volunteers were en route to Port Hardy on Friday.

"We’ve been trying to be of assistance ever since the ship caught fire. It was a bit patchy there while we waited for them to reach out properly to the First Nations and make sure as many of them were employees to clean their territories as possible and I gather they’ve done that now and realize that they need a great deal more human resources up there,” says Karen Wristen.

She tells Glacier Media the ship's owner has retained a consultant to do the cleanup work and they are being supervised by the Coast Guard. 

Wristen believes, with certainty, that more containers are below the surface.

“Some of them are breaking up, it would appear, underwater and releasing their contents,” she says. "We’ve seen additional debris of new types show up; most recently, I hear another 86 refrigerators showed up on the beach.”

As storms continue to roll in to the remote, pristine area, the containers will be rolled along the ocean bottom and on the rocky shore, she adds.

“They’re going to break open and whether it’s days, weeks, years from now, we are going to be seeing new debris hit the beaches,” Wristen continues. "Depending on what the content was and how much they were wind-driven as opposed to current-driven, they may be on the central coast by now, some of them may be as far as Haida Gwaii.”

Her crew has not been given their location for the cleanup yet, but she believes some of the containers may be over near Scott Islands, located about 10 kilometres off of Cape Scott Provincial Park. 

"I think all those containers should have had locators in them, so when they go down, it can be pinpointed and we can know what we are dealing with,” she says. "We should be able to know, at least, where they are, especially the ones with the hazardous chemicals in them.”

What's the impact on the environment?

Since the containers spilled into the ocean and smashed onto beaches, more than 70 refrigerators, 81 bags of Styrofoam and 19 bags of garbage have been collected from the Cape Palmerston Beach. 

Quatsino First Nation chief Tom Nelson says it will take about 30 years for them to know the full impact on marine life and the beaches.

“It will keep coming for years,” says Nelson in a written statement. “We will work to ensure the territory is cleaned up and fully monitored as well.” 

How many shipping containers are below and near their coast is something Calder says is a mystery.

"I can’t answer that. I don’t know the impacts. It’s a little scary to make that statement but it is the truth. We don’t know,” she says. "We are, right now, responding to an emergency. We are doing the best we can to make a plan for now.”

Stay out of cleanup areas

Individuals wanting to help remove debris are being urged to hold off.

Quatsino First Nation is asking people to avoid the area since they're the one responsible for people’s safety on the beaches. They need to know who is out there cleaning up and communicating with the helicopters, says Calder.

Collection points have been identified and only members of the cleanup crew are allowed in the area. 

Anyone who spots a shipping container is asked to call the Canadian Coast Guard at 1-800-889-8852.