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Laker spills fuel near Montreal; Seaway closed

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Emergency response teams continue to clean up a fuel spill in a canal of the St. Lawrence River near Montreal. A Canadian ship leaked at least 50 tons of bunker fuel when it ran aground Monday night. Environment officials say they believe most of the oil has been contained. But it's unclear exactly how much leaked into the waterway. It's the second time in as many weeks a ship has run aground on the St. Lawrence Seaway. David Sommerstein reports.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer
The Canada Steamship Line's Richelieu lost power around 7:30 Monday night. It hit the bank of the canal near the Cote St. Catherine lock, just across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. The collision ruptured the ship's fuel tank, spilling 50 to 200 tons of bunker fuel.

CBC Radio reporter Jay Turnbull says the hole in the ship's tank is the size of a basketball. He was on the scene yesterday. "You can see the water has like an oily, shiny hue to it, like when you see water and fuel mix, which spells disaster of course," Turnbull said.

An official with Environment Canada says the slick affected 2 to 3 kilometers of shoreline. Nearby towns were alerted to monitor their water supplies. But St. Lawrence Seaway spokesman Andrew Begora says the fuel never got into the open river. "The spill took place with the canal," Begora explained, "and within minutes the crew of the vessel had deployed their booms and the personnel at the lock very quickly shut the lock down and shut the weir down. So, in essence, the lock was sealed."

The Richelieu was carrying grain downriver. Begora says it's unclear why the ship lost power and an investigation is underway. He also noted that the canal was to remain closed until emergency response teams cleaned the spill and removed the Richelieu. He says five other ships were anchored in specially designated areas Tuesday morning waiting for the section to re-open.

The incident comes just a week after the Algobay, a Canadian freighter carrying corn, ran aground after losing power on Superior Shoal in Chippewa Bay. That incident remains under investigation. Any grounding in the Thousand Island brings back memories of the oil spill of 1976 and renews concerns about the safety of Seaway shipping.

The Seaway says safety rules are stronger than ever. But Jennifer Caddick of environmental group Save the River says this week's fuel spill shows that stricter regulations are necessary. "None of these ships, to our knowledge, have reinforced fuel tanks, so we've always raised this type of an accident as a possible scenario. It's pretty frightening to see it happen. We're fortunate that it happened in a relatively contained area," she said.

Andrew Begora says the St. Lawrence Seaway learns lessons from every accident. "Every event is reviewed carefully. The Seaway is committed to sustainability and I think it's very fair to say that this event will be carefully reviewed." He says the Cote St. Catherine lock and canal could be re-opened as early as today.

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