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Oil spill sparks renewed calls for dry-docking of historic vessel

Samson V: City needs to ensure that “not an additional drop of oil gets into the Fraser River

A proposal to put the Samson V into drydock may resurface at the council table in light of this week’s oil spill on the Fraser River.

On Thursday afternoon, Canadian Coast Guard responders were deployed to New Westminster’s riverfront after a sheen had been reported on the Fraser River. It was soon determined that the city-owned Samson V Maritime Museum was the source of the spill.

In April, Coun. Daniel Fontaine, supported by fellow New West Progressive councillor Paul Minhas, proposed that staff report back on costs, potential sources of funding and operational impacts associated with temporarily placing the Samson V in dry dock to repair and restore the vessel for public viewing. He also proposed that staff report back on options to find a permanent indoor home for the Samson V adjacent or on the waterfront, as part of a possible pier expansion and/or long-term tourism strategy.

In a 5-2 vote, council defeated the motion.

A day after the spill, Fontaine told the Record he wants council to receive a thorough report from city staff about Thursday’s incident, and he’d like that report to be made public.

“Secondly, and more importantly, I think this ship needs to be taken out of here,” he said. “I’m going to renew my calls again.”

Fontaine said he’d made two motions concerning the Samson V, neither of which received council’s support. While those motions focused on how the vessel could be part of the city’s waterfront, tourism and economic development strategy, he said he’s now also concerned about the Samson V from an environmental perspective.

“I’m obviously very concerned, and I want to make sure it doesn’t get repeated,” he said.

Fontaine, stressing that he and Minhas were speaking on behalf of themselves and not city council, said he wants assurances that the marine environment is protected.

“I will say, with just a tad of irony, that only a few weeks ago, we were sitting in council … having a debate about TMX pipeline and the concern around oil spills from the TMX pipeline,” he said. “And yet, a city-owned property ended up putting oil into the Fraser River, ironically. So I think that we should be maybe less focused on things that we don’t have control over and more focused on museums and pieces of infrastructure that are under our control that we own, and making sure that not an additional drop of oil gets into the Fraser River.”

On July 21, the City of New Westminster posted a statement on its website stating the oil that was in the Fraser River the previous day appears to have originated from the old fuel tanks of the Samson V. It stated that it has been determined that the fuel leaked from the fuel tanks into the ship’s bilge, where it was subsequently pumped outside the vessel.

“The Samson V bilge pumps have been turned off to ensure no more oil is pumped from the ship. … Currently, the tanks are being inspected to determine how much fuel is remaining and will take measures to mitigate any further leaks into the bilge,” said the statement. “Staff are also in the process of securing contractors to pump the remaining fuel from the tanks and properly clean the bilge areas impacted by the leak.”

The Samson V will remain closed to the public while repairs are being completed, stated the city.

Fontaine said the Samson V is part of the city’s history and should be preserved. He’d like to see it put into drydock while the city determines how it fits in with its waterfront vision.

“To me, it would be a real shame to let it disintegrate, as we’ve been seeing and happening before our eyes,” he said, “but also for it to not have a special place on our waterfront, or nearby, where kids and families and tourists can enjoy it and understand the story of this boat.”

Minhas said the Samson V has had a big role in the Fraser River’s history.

“I would like to see it preserved, but not the way it has been preserved or the condition that it’s in,” he said. “Let’s do something positive, if we’re going to do something with it, right? I think that’s very, very important. But to let it sit like this, have an oil spill, or be in the condition that it’s in, it’s shameful. Very, very shameful.”

The Samson V, moored on the city’s waterfront next to the Inn at the Quay and River Market, was the last steam-powered sternwheeler to operate in Canada. Built in 1937, the Samson V served a number of roles during its career on the water, including clearing debris.