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Radioactive spill ship in legal limbo off North Vancouver

Empty ship for sale by bankrupt owners while cargo's costs subject of civil suit

A ship that made headlines this year when a large amount of radioactive cargo spilled in its hold has wound up in limbo off North Vancouver while the owners duke it out in court.

The MCP Altona has been anchored in the waters of Indian Arm near the Dollarton neighbourhood since the spring, when federal officials gave it a clean bill of health following the mop-up of a load of uranium concentrate that spilled onboard.

The producers of the cargo, Saskatchewan's Cameco Corporation, say the owners of the ship owe them $19 million dollars or more for the losses Cameco suffered as a result of the accident. Cameco blames them for the spill, which took place when the Altona hit a winter storm in the central Pacific late last year.

The ship's immediate owners, a company called MS MCP Altona GMBH & Co KG, have since gone bankrupt, meaning Cameco has to wait for the ship to be sold before it has any chance of collecting. While the vessel waits for a buyer, and lawyers attempt to untangle the associated legal mess, the Altona will stay in the Inlet.

The events that led to the squabble began in December 2010, when Cameco packed up 350 tonnes of uranium concentrate - commonly called yellow cake - at its plant in Saskatchewan. The company put the radioactive powder into 840 drums, which it then packed into shipping containers for transport.

The cargo was sent to Vancouver and loaded onto the Altona for shipment to Zhan Jiang, China, where it would be processed into nuclear fuel. The ship set sail on Christmas Eve.

Somewhere between Hawaii and Midway Islands, the vessel hit rough weather, and some of the cargo fell over. An unspecified amount of the powder burst out of the containers, out of the drums and into the cargo hold. The crew discovered the mishap several days later.

In terms of radioactivity, yellow cake (technically called triuranium octaoxide - and usually black or dark brown in colour) lies somewhere between the ore it is derived from and the fuel rods it gets processed into. According to Cameco, a person standing about four or five metres from one of the drums would be exposed to the same amount of radiation that they would standing anywhere on the street.

But as a heavy metal, uranium is also toxic in the same way as lead or mercury. The compound is certainly not safe to be ingested or inhaled, and cleaning it up requires specialized knowledge and equipment, neither of which were available aboard the Altona or at its port of destination.

The ship initially tried to stop in at Honolulu, but was prevented by the U.S. Coast Guard, who raised concerns over the hazardous nature of the material. It eventually made its way back to British Columbia - hitting more heavy seas on the way - and anchored at Ladysmith while the companies involved and various authorities hatched a plan for remediation.

Late in January, the boat was moved to the Ballantyne docks in the Port of Vancouver, where Cameco and the authorities oversaw the lengthy cleanup process. In March, the last of the spilled yellow cake was packed up and sent back to Saskatchewan, and crews finished cleaning the ship about a month later. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and Transport Canada declared the Altona clean and safe in early May.

It was moved to Indian Arm as the legal battles got underway.

In its statement of claim, Cameco alleges that the ship's owners were negligent in the way they handled the cargo, saying the vessel was un-seaworthy, that the containers weren't secured properly and that the ship was steered into seas that were too rough to navigate safely.

"The resulting damages, losses and expenses (were) the result of the defendants' failure to properly and carefully load, handle, stow, carry, keep, care for and discharge the goods," said Cameco in the claim.

Cameco says the cleanup cost close to $10 million, and that it is owed additional sums for damage to its cargo, berthing of the ship and other expenses totalling another $9 million or more. Faced with the suit, the Altona's owner went bankrupt.

In an effort to get its money back, Cameco is going after other companies involved in the transport, including Germany-based Hartmann Schiffahrts GMBH and Co. and Hartmann Shipping Asia as well as others.

But in a statement of defence filed in July, the Hartmann companies put the blame squarely back on Cameco, saying that the uranium producer and its contractors were the ones who had dropped the ball. Hartmann alleges that the drums weren't properly secured inside the containers, that the containers weren't properly selected, that Cameco hadn't hired competent stevedores, and hadn't provided adequate instructions to them, and that it didn't remediate the vessel in a cost-effective way.

What's more, Cameco wasn't even the owner of the cargo, according to Hartmann; rather, it belonged to a Switzerland-based affiliate, Cameco Europe. Hartmann also denies owning the vessel - saying it really belonged to the now-defunct MS MCP Altona GMBH - and challenges Cameco to demonstrate it suffered any loss at all. If it did, according the Hartmann, Hartmann wasn't liable.

In August, a federal court ordered the vessel sold. If Cameco wins its case, at least some of the compensation will likely come out of that sale. The Altona remains on the market.

The ship's presence near homes in Dollarton has stirred up some controversy among North Shore residents. The North Shore News has received a number of messages from readers raising concerns that the neighbourhood may be at risk of exposure to poisonous or radioactive substances.

Cameco and Port Metro Vancouver both told the News in interviews that such fears were unfounded.

"It was assessed that there was no risk," said Yoss Leclerc, director of operations and security for the port. "The whole time (it was being remediated) there were inspectors there from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission; there was a team there on a day-to-day basis. . . . The only reason it's (in Indian Arm) is because there are some claims against the ship."

Leclerc said he expected the sale to be settled by October, if not the legal claims.

Hartmann Schiffahrts could not be reached by deadline. None of the allegations have been proven in court.