Lessons from Zim Kingston

MV Zim Kingston in Nanaimo, December 2021, M. Leduc

On October 21, 2021, near the completion of its journey from South Korea to Vancouver, the container ship Zim Kingston reported to Canada’s Vessel Traffic Service Prince Rupert Radio, that it had lost part of its cargo of containers. Originally, the ship reported losing 40 containers, which was revised to 109 a few days later. US and Canadian authorities dropped locating beacons to track the movement of the containers; the initial incident was widely covered in the popular media.

The ship proceeded into the sheltered waters of Juan de Fuca Strait, to an anchorage on Constance Bank, off Victoria, BC. On October 23rd a fire onboard was declared and an incident response command was established by the Canadian Coast Guard, and a Incident Command System (ICS) was adopted by the BC provincial government. The ICS involved vessel representative, salvagers and response organization amongst other stakeholders. On October 31, the fire onboard Zim Kingston was declared extinguished.

Nanaimo: a port of refuge

MV Zim Kingston in Nanaimo, December 2021, M. Leduc

In early November, the Port of Nanaimo joined the Incident Command System, as stakeholder and probable destination for the overhaul and salvage of the Zim Kingston’s damaged cargo. The Nanaimo Port Authority (NPA) is under federal authority and located, north of Victoria, on central Vancouver Island. The NPA controls large industrial lands and various port facilities throughout Nanaimo, or the “Hub City”, as it is known.

One facility the NPA controls, is the underused container terminal at Duke Point. It’s operator DP World Canada, currently operates a small container short sea barge service, and some opportunistic breakbulk cargoes from the facility. In a recently announced long term agreement, the Dubai based operator and the NPA expect the facility to grow dramatically, to accept container ships, not just as a transshipment hub, but also directly for local consumers, something that is not currently done.

On November 8th, 2021, the transit plans for the Zim Kingston were “approved” by Transport Canada, with the DP World container terminal being the logical destination. Nearby Vancouver facilities were running at capacity, and would not be able to accommodate such a time and space consuming salvage operation. The vessel departed Victoria on December 03, 2021, with loose containers having been temporarily secured by the salvagers, Resolve Marine Group of Florida, USA.  

MV Zim Kingston in Nanaimo, December 2021, M. Leduc

My home is near this terminal, and being an avid follower of shipping events I naturally gravitated to this story, because it is one that is relatively rare in these parts. Previous to the ship’s arrival in Nanaimo, I had made request to take pictures of the salvage operations. It quickly became evident that an extensive “black out” was in effect, I heard from numerous sources of a “gag order” on anything related to the Zim Kingston was in place – which I found somewhat strange.

Being an engineering officer in the merchant marine for 25 plus years now, gag orders are not new. Corporations have carefully crafted images, that don’t always reflect their true motivations. After all, in the shadows is where “things get done” – not always good things.

The Who

What surprised me the most about the Zim Kingston’s sojourn in Canada, and in particular, Nanaimo, was the lack of available information from taxpayer funded organizations. Apart from the obvious dramatic media of a ship on fire, there seems to be very little details in the reporting.

The average person sees ships as singular entity, cargo and all, far away on the horizon, but from their location. The operation and management of a ship is far more complex, and is a global business.

What we can surmise about the Zim Kingston:

Coustas Dimitris, and spouse, Danaos’ Founder, picture from Danaos Corporation website
  • Public records list Balticsea Marine Inc., a Liberian registered company, as the owner of the Zim Kingston.
  • That company appears to be a “shell company”, that may or may not be controlled by the Danaos Corporation of Greece – “one of the largest independent owners of modern container ships in the world”.
  • The Zim Kingston is chartered to Zim Integrated Shipping Services Ltd., one of the largest companies based in Israel. 
  • The container terminal in Nanaimo, is leased to DP World Canada, to the benefit of DP World, based in the United Arab Emirates.
  • The insurer is the Swedish Club (Piraeus team).
  • The salvagers, Resolve Marine, is a Florida, USA, based salvage company.
  • Search results indicate that the crew is mostly eastern European officers, with Asian crew; all under an ITF agreement.
  • The technical managers of the ship, may be another entity altogether.

I think you might be seeing a trend here. Individual ships are complex business relationships with very little local content.

The entities and companies listed above are structured in such arrangement that they contribute very little in way of taxes to local governments or even national governments, in area in which they operate and draw benefits from. Hence my curiosity and interest in this story. How do our public agencies respond to these incidents, who pays, who is held responsible, who ultimately ends up with this waste?

Talking to a wall

Numerous attempts at reaching out to these commercial entities, yielded no responses. I did speak to the ship’s agent at Navitrans, in Vancouver, who said he would get back to me, but never did. I never did expect any forthright comments from them; but I would have liked their blessing to get some pictures. It became clear that every entity commercial, or otherwise, was under a code of silence.

Nanaimo Port Authority (NPA) main administration building. Jan 2022, M. Leduc

Transport Canada (TC), the Nanaimo Port Authority (NPA – a federal agency), the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) however should be in the center of this incident and therefore should have been visible on site and willing to share details of their response. This was not the case in my experience.

Emails to the general TSB media contact point bounced. Sending a request for another media contact point took seven days to answer, and the answer was: providing a general email address to send another email to. According to TSB’s website, the bureau is investigating the incident as a Class 3 occurrence. The timeline for the report is 450 days.

A class 3 occurrence may have significant consequences that attract a high level of public interest. It may involve multiple fatalities and/or serious injuries. There may be a medium-sized release of dangerous goods. There is moderate to significant damage to property and/or the environment. There are public expectations that the TSB will investigate. It is quite likely that new safety lessons will be identified and that transportation safety will be advanced by reducing risks to persons, property, or the environment. A detailed investigation is required.


TC was courteous, quick to reply, and answered about half of the questions I asked. A third of the questions were referred to the commercial entities – which were not answered, the others were not answered.

From the information provided, I know that TC was not on site in Nanaimo with any regularity, if at anytime. There was an inspection carried out by TC immediately after the first fire, but no official port state inspection is registered in the database. They also confirmed that there was, is, no ongoing investigation for breaches of the Canada Shipping Act by the various entities associated with Zim Kingston. They confirmed that the only federal agency that was on site, overseeing operations while the vessel was tied up in Nanaimo, was the Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA).

From visual observations, the CBSA was indeed very active during the salvage operation in Nanaimo. They seem to be taking their work seriously and meticulously, judging by the process, equipment and personnel on site.

The Canada Border Services Agency works to ensure Canada’s security and prosperity by managing the access of people and goods to and from Canada.

CBSA website

The CBSA is only there to monitor the security or legality of the goods entering Canada; they are not a transportation, safety or environmental regulator.

Considerable personnel on site during salvage of MV Zim Kingston in Nanaimo, December 2021, M. Leduc

Smithers: Release the hounds

When I first attended the Duke Point area, as the Zim Kingston was coming alongside, I was hounded numerous times by agitated security personnel, who ordered me away from various publicly accessible areas. They said that “no pictures were allowed to be taken of the ship”; I am not sure if they realized the stupidity of that statement, but it is a big ship. As a result, I contacted the NPA, among other local authorities, with a series of questions and request for access. The NPA replied to them, in a rather flippant attitude, and almost unanimous stated that the information was “proprietary” and therefore not answered.

I am not a pushy person and I believe that although I may not fit the traditional definition of a journalist, I certainly fit the definition of neighbor, community citizen, and constituent of the port with legitimate concerns. I.e. what are you doing with this potentially toxic waste being dumped in my backyard, and who’s paying for it?

Even the Nanaimo Fire Department refused to answer any questions. On a visit to the area near the salvage site, I struck up a conversation with two NFR senior officers nearby, in a command vehicle, about general fire response and investigative procedures. Chatty at first, they clammed up quickly, stated they were not going to comment on Zim Kingston or unrelated processes “at this time”. They asked for my contact details to follow up; I gave them my business card, and never heard from them again.

They are doing the right thing! right?

My faith in foreign multinationals “doing the right thing” is pretty low based on my experience. With the Zim Kingston having visited Nanaimo and my having a quick peek as to how regulators provide oversight, I feel that I may have too much confidence in them. I have to ask myself maybe my expectations were too high. Granted, from what I saw first hand, the salvage appeared to be well executed with plenty of resources on sight, and a process that seemed to be respectful of environment and safety protocols.

Response equipment on site in Nanaimo, during Zim Kingston salvage, Dec 2021, M. Leduc.

I had one conversation with Regional District of Nanaimo’s (RDN) solid waste manager, Mr. Larry Gardner. This gentleman restored a bit of my faith in our publicly funded managers. I had sent an email requesting, as the operators of the nearby landfill, information as to what precautions they were taking with the waste from Zim Kingston. Instead of replying to the email, he called me. Over a 30 minute conversation he explained the various regulations involved (which are provincial) and how the RDN makes sure they are adhere to. He explained that they were not the likely destination of the waste, but the local waste removal contractor was probably sending it to nearby Washington state. 

I did not need to know nor am I entitled to details of everything, but I wanted to know that we had professionals who took pride in their craft and had our community’s best interest in mind. To which, I am satisfied that Larry at the RDN does.

The NPA did eventually call me after a couple of days, and I was finally able to have some questions answered, but not before I had to pull a few “levers”. Seems someone in management decided to be more forthright about the salvage occurring in our neighborhood. Subsequently, the NPA was noticeably more vocal and upfront with local media which was reassuring to some degree.

The media’s got this

Image released by Canadian Coast Guard, widely circulated in the media, showing Maersk Trader and Maersk Tender dousing the Zim Kingston off Victoria, Oct 2021.

The master on one of the boats I sail on stated that he had plenty of confidence in regulators, and that nothing on-towards was being done (!). I don’t share this view. The Master carried on: who was I, to be told the play by play of the events onboard the Zim Kingston? “Proper Media” provides the oversight, and that it wasn’t my job to be told whats going on (! – again).

I am definitely not a journalists, even after 23 years of running my marine engineering website, which is well known within the marine industry, especially in Canada, I don’t consider myself to be all that. Then again I do see that journalism is not what it use to be.

There are trades publications, but very few in Canada, and certainly not critical of shipping, since they are usually the advertisers in those same trade publications. The “lamestream” media must be on it, right? Yes, the main news sources were certainly covering the major parts of the ZIm Kingston’s incident; it received national and even international news coverage. As it should.

Locally, I have supplied the bulk of the pictures in the trade publications featuring stories of the Zim Kingston, along with official Canadian Coast Guard images. Internationally, there was extensive mentions, but in snippets fitting the theme of the publication – i.e. 250 words on “who is the insurer” with no supporting media.

Dec 15, 2021, Victoria’s Times Colonist, Vancouver Island largest newspaper.

Traditionally, newsprint is the more accepted record of choice. There is two major cities in BC, Vancouver on the mainland, and Victoria on the Island. The major newspaper for Victoria and Vancouver Island is the Times Colonist; but the Times Colonist does not have a reporter based in Nanaimo, the island’s second largest city. The local news in Nanaimo barely covered the Zim Kingston, apart than its “not a tanker” kinda of discussion.

With the trendy vilification of media, I find that we are endangering our democratic institutions. This is probably the most alarming aspect of this incident for me, we have very few people watching and truly and accurately recording what is going on in our society.

Another reporter I collaborated with, was based in Seattle, working for National Public Radio, Mr. John Ryan. He produced timely and insightful articles that covered the Zim Kingston extensively. These reporters’ speed and accuracy I found impressive and that’s why I cannot call myself a journalist, because there is no substitute for a proper professional. But they seem to be rare, so, cherish and support them.

What did I learn

To conclude, Zim Kingston left Canadian waters in February 2022. ZIM is making all sorts of headlines about their incredible stock performance.

A similar incident in Australia is under criminal prosecution, while in Canada, I don’t get a sense that there is much motivation from federal authorities in explaining, and much less, in prosecuting the ship owner. It was most likely negligence that occurred on Zim Kingston, causing it to spill its cargo, polluting our pristine Vancouver Island coastline. Maybe Transport Canada’s apparent policy, due to public pressure, to keep ships out of public sight, hence out at sea, in rough weather, played a role.

One of the 109 containers that fell off the Zim Kingston, washed up and broken on Vancouver Island’s coast. Picture from BC Gov.

Only one group of people seem to have any critical voice in this incident, and they have almost nothing to do with shipping. The saddest part is the local authorities displaying an worrisome disregard for the community they operate in, or even lacking the pride in their professionalism to showcase their work.

Maybe the “blackout and gag order” policy are because of the law firm involved, Bernard LLC, based in Vancouver, it is a go to firm for foreign shipping companies operating in Canada. While I admire passion and professionalism, in observing past dealings of this law firm, and can empathize with comments from industry leaders about Bernard LLC being “hyper aggressive”, “tactical”, “a detriment to the public interest”.

My first “that cant be right” moment involving Bernard LLC, I wrote about in 2014 blog post, in regards to Silja Festival and its non Canadians seafarers working in Kitimat. Most Vancouverites know them as the Marathassa’s lawyers, another Greek owned ship. That ship spilled bunker fuel, while at anchor, soiling Vancouver’s treasured beaches. The ship sailed away without as much as a slap on the wrist or paying any damage reparations, laying bare the weakness of our federal regulators and / or our laws.

Similar to the Marathassa, the Zim Kingston has sailed away without any consequences apart from minor inconveniences to its owners, whoever they are. 105 containers have not been recovered, nor are the whereabouts or condition known. The assumption is that they are sunk, however, observation of the Canada’s remote west coast would suggest otherwise.

BC’s tourism sector, which our coast line is a major part of, is a nine billion dollar a year sector. Publicly, we pay lip service to the environmental cause, but in reality, which this incident illustrates, that “trade” needs to keep moving at whatever cost, even if on dodgy ships. There is less and less people able or willing to provide any critical oversight, especially by those responsible to provide oversight. This is especially troublesome when it involves non Canadian entities that provide little benefit to the greater good of the nation.

I sure hope all the local contractors and suppliers were fully compensated before this ship left Canada. The likely hood of recovering debt from the salvage operation, or incurred in the ongoing clean up of the coast from this incident is slim to none. The burden will fall to the taxpayers and various charities.

These are disappointing observations, and it is not what I want from my government.

Damaged dangerous goods container on the pier at the Port of Nanaimo, no mention of these goods in the various news report. Dec 2021, M Leduc

Transport Canada and Australian Marine Safety certified Marine Engineer, over 25 years experience sailing professionally on commercial ships all over the world. Creator and editor of www.dieselduck.net. Father of three, based in Nanaimo, British Columbia.

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