Concerns over rusting cargo ship abandoned on shore of Quebec town

BEAUHARNOIS, Que. -- As Mayor Claude Haineault tells it, the arrival of a hulking cargo ship along the shores of his southwestern Quebec town a little more than four years ago caught residents by surprise.

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A local company had bought the decommissioned Kathryn Spirit, intending to dismantle it in the waters off Beauharnois and use it for scrap.

But following a series of controversies, the rusty vessel has sat idle since September 2011 without a disposal plan for the abandoned bulk carrier.

"We woke up one morning and there was a ship attached to a barge," says Haineault, pointing at the dormant ship on the shores of Lake St. Louis, which streams into the St. Lawrence River.

Haineault has been fighting to get the decrepit carrier out of the town, about 60 kilometres southwest of Montreal, and says it might be an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen, given recent developments.

The local firm, Groupe St-Pierre, eventually sold the ship to a Mexican company, which apparently went bankrupt and abandoned it a few weeks ago.

Another Quebec firm that had been hired to maintain the vessel and operate the pumps to keep it upright recently stopped doing so after not being paid.

Federal Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo reassured Haineault the Kathryn Spirit is not discharging any pollutants and that the "vast majority" of them were removed in 2013.

"The Quebec government has confirmed that the Kathryn Spirit currently poses no risk of environmental contamination and measures are in place to actively monitor the vessel to ensure no pollution damages occur," Tootoo wrote in a letter dated Jan. 22.

But Haineault argues that Beauharnois officials don't have a detailed account of the ship's contents. There has been increased vandalism, including two fires.

"What we know from the (former) maintenance firm is they recommended to our firefighters not to go on board the ship in case of fire," Haineault said. "They said it would be extremely risky with toxic products and the fumes it would produce."

Federal officials are scheduled to visit their Beauharnois counterparts on Monday to discuss the ship, which is currently encased in thin ice and anchored to a makeshift dock upstream from Montreal.

"This boat is taking in water and if nothing is done, it'll end up capsizing in the water," Haineault fears.

Built in 1967, the 150-metre-long Kathryn Spirit was used to haul cargo. In 2011, Groupe St-Pierre's plans to tear it down for scrap were scuppered by the province and local residents. It sold the ship to Reciclajes Ecologicos Maritimos, which intended to bring it back to Mexico.

It nearly left in 2013, but the tug that was supposed to tow it was stopped in Halifax and impounded with the crew living in terrible conditions.

Haineault says the federal government has not properly addressed his concerns.

Both he and the local MP say the ship is not just a problem for Beauharnois -- and that if there's contamination in the St. Lawrence River, it could create problems downstream in Montreal and surrounding communities.

In Montreal, the river is a sensitive topic after the city controversially dumped five billion litres of raw sewage into the body of water last year so it could do infrastructure work.

Montreal-area mayors support Haineault's call for federal help, agreeing in a recent joint statement that the Kathryn Spirit's presence "constitutes a nuisance and an environmental hazard."

Anne Minh-Thu Quach, the New Democrat MP for Salaberry-Suroit, has been calling for federal action since 2011.

"If they wait until there's a leak or catastrophe, it'll cost even more to decontaminate and move the wreckage," Quach says.

"The state of the boat isn't going to get better and now no one is keeping watch."

The federal government says it will work on a contingency plan, but Quach and Haineault suggest a more immediate response is needed.

"What we're asking is that the ship leave Beauharnois -- there's no port installation here and we object to any demolition work taking place here," Haineault said. "It should be sent to a dry dock and demolished in a way that's safe for the environment."


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