Abe Shah, right, of Bennington Group, speaks with the Cape Breton Post on Tuesday. Also pictured is Ken Phelps, an environmental consultant with Bennington. Steve Wadden - Cape Breton Post
SYDNEY — A New York-based salvage company has made good on an ongoing threat to walk away from the MV Miner, but has left the door open for the possibility of a return in two weeks.
To date, the Bennington Group’s operation to remove the bulk carrier that ran aground off Scatarie Island more than a year ago has moved by fits and starts, with the latest finish date of Dec. 1 becoming increasingly less likely with each passing day.
Various delays, including a stop-work order to address safety concerns that was lifted on Oct. 29, have plagued the salvage project, a joint venture with MV Miner owner Arivina Navigation SA of Turkey, from the beginning.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, said Bennington Group environmental consultant Ken Phelps, came when the Department of Labour informed them on Thursday that they couldn’t use a barge secured to the hull of the wreck to allow engineers onboard to make an assessment of the vessel, despite an earlier verbal agreement with the department allowing them to do so.
“The Labour Department said it was a violation of a new order,” said Phelps. “We had to cut the barge loose and beach it. It took us five days to reposition it again, and we didn’t complete that until (Monday).”
According to Bennington Group chief operating officer Abe Shah, the barge incident is just the latest in a long series of bureaucratic obstacles placed in his path by the province.
“If they really want us, we need to have all these government departments get together and come up with a plan, a rule book, and tell me what they want me to do,” said Shah. “Everything they’ve asked for, I’ve done. But no longer.”
And it’s not just bureaucratic red tape that Shah would like to see cleared up before he comes back. With the delays, Shah estimates he’s lost more than $300,000 in rental costs for equipment sitting idle, as well as hotel rooms and transportation for his workers.
As well, he believes the contract to remove “floatables” from the vessel wasn’t followed correctly, and claims that much of the material that should have been removed is still there, while valuable salvage materials such as copper wire and brass fittings are missing. The province disputes that, saying its monitors observed the removal process and are confident it was done correctly.
“If in two weeks time this government doesn’t address these problems, to recoup my money from this venture I will take it to the (United States Court of International Trade),” he said. “But I doubt if I will hear from the province. They’d like for the ship to disappear, but it’s a ticking time bomb and they have no plan for it.”
Natural Resources Minister Charlie Parker is hopeful the Bennington Group can be convinced to come back to the project, but he makes no apologies for the province’s stance on worker safety.
“We haven’t asked anything of this company that we wouldn’t ask any competent company to do,” he said. “We have laws and safety regulations that need to be adhered to and we’ve worked with the Bennington Group to help them understand how we operate in this province and country.
“We are still prepared to do that. We are still prepared to sit down and try to work this through.”
With the Dec. 1 deadline for project completion rapidly approaching, Parker admitted questions are starting to arise over whether there’s enough time left to get the work done.
“It’s going to depend on how quickly we can get together with the company. They approached us here to remove the ship. We issued orders to the owners to have the MV Miner removed and they’ve hired the Bennington Group to do just that,” he said.
“We remain hopeful that we can find a resolution here that will allow that ship to be removed as soon as possible.”
If the Bennington Group doesn’t return, Parker feels it’s time for Ottawa to step up to the plate.
“I think there’s a full responsibility here by the federal government,” he said. “It was them that issued the permits in the first place to have this ship towed across the Atlantic.”