Federal Court deems Cormorant’s owner still undecided

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>FILE PHOTO</p><p>The ownership of the derelict ship at the Port of Bridgewater, Cormorant, remains in question following an April 30 Federal Court decision.</p>

The Federal Court has rendered a decision on the lengthy ownership issue of Cormorant, the derelict vessel that has been languishing in the Port of Bridgewater for years.

But the decision by Justice E. Heneghan on April 30 doesn't necessarily mean there will be a a quick resolution to the eyesore.

In her decision, Heneghan indicated ownership of the vessel could not be determined summarily, which means in order for it to be resolved the issue would have to go to trial.

The Ship-Source Oil Pollution Fund, (SOPF), which is claiming $534,340.76 against the vessel's owner for salvage costs incurred when it toppled onto the port's jetty in March, 2015, along with the Port of Bridgewater, are now considering next steps.

"It's a pretty technical judgment, basically what the court can and cannot do," explained Jay Straith, the lawyer for Rick Welsford, the owner of the Port of Bridgewater.

"We're basically looking at years more litigation," he added.

Welsford has been battling to try and have the abandoned vessel removed and to recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid moorage fees.

However, according to Straith, the chance of the port ever recovering its outstanding claim is "small to none, given the value of the derelict ship."

In any case, he says, "Our big concern is just get that ship the hell out of there."

Welsford commented that there is a reason courts give people "30 days to figure out all that gobbledygook.

"And to get some opinions on what we're going to do and not do."

However, his understanding of the decision is that the court confirmed that the Port of Bridgewater is not the owner of the vessel.

"And as far as I'm concerned, that now opens up for us to get back to our job that we started years ago and get rid of the boat."

Welsford has been pushing to have the vessel put up for auction with the buyer responsible for taking it away.

Insisting the port isn't the owner, he acknowledges the Federal Court will have to be involved in any such action.

However, he said "somebody's got to step up again."

Welsford made a commitment to the community to have the boat removed.

"I'm the landlord. It's at my wharf, and I've got to get it out of there. So I have to figure out how to do that."

The complicated ownership case pitted the SPOF against the Port of Bridgewater, the numbered company 3092714 Nova Scotia Limited, the American company Cormorant Marine Services Corporation and Neil Hjelle of the U.S.

The SOPF is a Canadian fund created from levies collected from oil cargo companies. It provides compensation for damages caused by oil spills from ships.

"The question of ownership of the Defendant Ship at this relevant time is not a "pure" question of law. It is a question of mixed fact and law. I am not satisfied on the basis of the evidence submitted that this question can be answered on a summary basis," the justice wrote in her decision.

David Coté, the lawyer for SOPF, responded that the vessel's ownership issue has been "a problem and a challenge from the get-go."

The court's decision was "not the outcome we were expecting," Coté said, adding that the Canadian taxpayer expects the fund to put up a fight even when the ownership issue is foggy.

"This is not the end of the road. All we were trying to, at this point, was to determine on an expedited basis the owner of the vessel."

Coté explained that SOPF could appeal the decision or move toward a trial, or determine that neither would be worth it.

"We still have to review all of our options and decide what we're going to do," he said.

In any case, Coté didn't accept there was the possibility a lengthy trial might result in a determination that, because of the complicated transfer issues behind the vessel, there is, in fact, no legal owner.

"There's always an owner," he insisted.

"Just because a vessel is not claimed, doesn't mean that there's not a last person who has a legal right to it."

Meanwhile, subsequent to the court's decision, Horseshoe Bay Marine Group, the Vancouver-based company initially in charge of Cormorant's recovery operation in 2015, now will be submitting a claim to the Canadian Coast Guard for approximately $1.3 million.

Hired by the port, Horseshoe led a contingent of coast guard members, private engineers, naval architects and marine salvage experts assessing the ship to develop a strategic plan to get it upright with the least amount of environmental risk.

Ownership of the vessel was called into question when the port began taking legal steps to ensure the costs it was incurring to right the vessel would be covered and Straith couldn't find the name of a registered owner.

At the time, Straith told LighthouseNOW that the federal government does not register Canadian navy ships, and it appeared Ottawa didn't ensure those who bought the ship after it was decommissioned registered it either.

With the question of who owns Cormorant up in the air, the coast guard was forced to take over the salvage operation.

"They just took charge and basically pushed us off the job site," Spears told LighthouseNOW in a telephone interview at the time.

"We'll take charge of the incident where the owner is unknown, unwilling or unable to respond," Keith Laidlaw, senior response officer for the coast guard's Atlantic region, explained later in an interview.

According to Spears, the company never submitted its bill before now because of the ownership issue.

He says the coast guard is bound under the Canada Shipping Act to pay for the service that was rendered.

"This shouldn't come as any surprise," said Spears.

Meanwhile, last spring, Welsford received a Federal Court judgment concerning the two trawlers which are also languishing in the port, Hannah Atlantic, and the Ryan Atlantic II, which is more widely known by its former name, Cape Rouge.

The judgment allows him to entertain offers and make a recommendation back to the court.

He now says the two trawlers are "actively for sale."

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