Bridge safety in Metro Vancouver questioned after Baltimore ship strike, collapse

Simon Little & John Hua
bridge collapse

Mar. 26, 2024

The ship strike and tragic collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge early Tuesday morning has put a spotlight on the potential risks faced by two of Metro Vancouver’s key spans.

Dozens of tankers, cruise ships and other vessels pass beneath the Lions Gate and Ironworkers Memorial bridges every week.

While there has never been a catastrophic collision, past engineering reviews of the two bridges have flagged their massive support piers as a key vulnerability that would not hold up to a ship impact.

Click to play video: 'From the archive: 1979 collision of freighter into Second Narrows Rail Bridge'
From the archive: 1979 collision of freighter into Second Narrows Rail Bridge

“The risk is always minimal until it isn’t. Accidents happen,” said Peter McCartney, a climate campaigner with the Wilderness Committee.

The provincial government is in the midst of designing barriers specifically to protect the bridges’ pier structures.

Engineers are looking at a rock berm for the south tower of the Lions Gate Bridge that would deflect an approaching ship to run aground before striking the support.

“If a vessel were to get off course and start navigating towards the structure, the rock berm would help slow down and prevent any sort of vessel impact or very much lessen the impact of it, which would allow the column and the pier of the bridge to stay intact,” said Janelle Staite, deputy director for the South Coast with the Ministry of Transportation.

In-water bollards that would work similarly are being designed for the Ironworkers Bridge.

But design work on those protective measures is still expected to take about a year.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are raising the alarm about a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic expected to soon transit both bridges.

Those vessels will come when the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion goes online, potentially as soon as May.

Click to play video: 'Baltimore bridge collapse: Rescue efforts under way after ship collision'
Baltimore bridge collapse: Rescue efforts under way after ship collision 

“It’s extremely frustrating to know that over a decade after this fight started we are still in no better place to prepare for a vessel strike of the Ironworkers or a catastrophic oil spill in the Burrard Inlet than we were when this all started,” McCartney said.

In 2016, a group called the Concerned Professional Engineers produced a report warning of a potential bridge disaster involving a massive Aframax-class oil tanker and the Ironworkers Bridge.

The report specifically cited the possibility a vessel could strike the adjacent rail bridge, sending its debris into the Ironworkers and toppling both.

Eugene Kung, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, helped with the report and said federal regulators appeared to have simply dismissed the prospect outright.

“What they essentially said was we think that it’s so unlikely that we’re not really going to consider it as a possibility. And that’s just not a proper risk assessment,” he said.

“There were attempts to reach out to federal and provincial authorities, the purpose of this report was to raise the alarm … but to my knowledge, none of those risk factors have been meaningfully addressed.”

Click to play video: 'Baltimore bridge collapse: NTSB describes incident following container ship collision'

Baltimore bridge collapse: NTSB describes incident following container ship collision

The province, meanwhile, insists the risk of a collision is minimal, pointing to the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s strict navigation policies, which include piloting requirements, traffic control zones and mandatory escort tugs.

Escort tugs were not present in Baltimore, a critical safety difference in Vancouver’s case, according to Rishi Luthra, marine operations with the B.C. Chamber of Shipping.

“It’s a regulation that every big vessel has to have an escort service,” he told CKNW’s The Jill Bennett Show.

“Let’s say the oil carriers or bigger container vessels or cruise vessels when they pass or transit through the Lions Gate Bridge, they have to have a tug, so even if they’ve lost all power the tugs can pull back and drift the vessel in a different direction.”

Environmentalists, however, maintain that increased vessel traffic will mean increased risk.

“We’re very nervous for those first few months,” McCartney said.

“If something has gone wrong, we’ll take no solace in being proven right.”