Exhaust fumes a concern for Marine Atlantic ferry user

Passenger said he received a well-trained and very professional customer service “kiss off” to concerns on board a recent crossing.

Published on July 18, 2016

Marine Atlantic MV Highlanders

©File photo

Dear Editor, Marine Atlantic is in the middle of their survival season. It is prime time commercial and tourism season and thousands of folks are taking the Trans Canada connector between North Sydney and Port aux Basques.

Whether the drive off the boat leads to the majestic Wreckhouse or the winding Kelly’s Mountain, it is a necessary evil for us Newfoundlanders. The nearly $700 for the crossing with a cabin is painful in many ways.

Aside from the truckers and tourists, the passengers are generally Newfoundlanders heading out for a holiday or Newfoundlanders heading home for a holiday. It is survival time for Marine Atlantic because this is when they pay their bills with non-stop crossings that stretch all systems to the maximum. Here is a warning for your next trip.

I crossed on the holiday weekend of May 22, 2016 and saw a side of their safety systems that should alarm and madden all Newfoundlanders. While unloading from the Highlanders at North Sydney, we were engulfed in exhaust fumes from the cars and trucks waiting to unload. Sitting in this toxic pool of carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide can kill you relatively quickly while longer-term exposure has serious health effects. The report card on the safety performance of Marine Atlantic on this day was less than impressive. Passengers sat in their cars with three-foot banks of exhaust clinging to the ceiling along with air containing clearly visible exhaust at eye level. As we waited to unload, you could taste the exhaust in your mouth as workers wearing scarves over their faces helped to unload the boat.

I am not a marine safety expert but I know when I am in a dangerous situation. I got my family out of our vehicle and headed to the back of the boat. Deck 5 on the Highlanders and Blue Puttees are both open deck at the middle to the back of the boat. Ironically, all trucks and cars were parked at the front of the boat where there is a low ceiling that traps exhaust. The response of the safety program at Marine Atlantic and even more important the response to my complaints by both Marine Atlantic and Transport Canada should be both alarming and disturbing to all Newfoundlanders who are dependent on this ferry service.

The undisputable fact is that the system failed in providing safe air to the passengers. I have never seen this occur during my travels on the custom designed Caribou or Smallwood. When the system failed, there was no response. No one was told to turn off their cars or return to the upper decks. No alarms sounded indicating that the air exchange system was not working or that levels of carbon monoxide were at a dangerous level. The only obvious reaction was workers wearing scarves over their face, which is an innovative cost saving application of personal safety protective equipment.

Here is what Newfoundlanders should be extremely vexed about. Similar to an airplane, when one boards a ferry, one puts their life in the hands of the operator – in this case Marine Atlantic. After getting off the ferry, I felt it my responsibility to make this situation clear to the responsible authorities. I called Marine Atlantic and received the well-trained and very professional customer service “kiss off”. Basically, it is the trust us – it will never happen again strategy. Not satisfied, I contacted Nova Scotia Occupational Health and Safety. To my surprise, Marine Atlantic is exempt from OH&S and is regulated by Transport Canada. This is probably a good thing for Marine Atlantic because any OH&S safety inspector that I have worked around would have shut down the services for the safety of the travelling public.

Not wanting to let a serious situation go unchecked, I took the time to write a letter to Transport Canada. After two weeks and no response, I contacted them directly and that is when things became a little disturbing. The response was that Marine Atlantic had addressed the situation and Transport Canada was satisfied with the results. When I asked what steps were taken, I was told that they were confidential. My family was placed in harm’s way and the corrective actions are confidential – really. I thought the regulatory body was required to ensure transparency in protecting the travelling public. They clearly wanted it swept under the carpet.

However, my conversation with Transport Canada revealed some astonishing facts. The first is that the Blue Puttees and the Highlander do not have an air exchange system on Deck 5. Since the back of the boat is open, an air exchange system is not required. That is despite the fact that 40-50% of Deck 5 has vehicles with a low ceiling that traps exhaust. The Safety of Lives at Sea Standard requires a 20 full air exchanges every hour or one every three minutes on an unloading passenger ferry. Even more astonishing is the fact that there are no alarms to indicate high levels of toxins in the air. I would assume that with such a high risk of dangerously poor air quality that regular (weekly) air quality tests were being conducted to verify safe air. Transport Canada could not provide that information since they felt it was confidential which tells me that it does not occur.

I am not sure who to be more mad at – Marine Atlantic or Transport Canada. If Marine Atlantic takes a cavalier approach to my safety, shame on their senior executives. However, it is the responsibility of Transport Canada to regulate their performance. I am sending a copy of this letter and further communication to the Federal Minister responsible for Transport Canada – the Honorable Marc Garneau or as most of us recognize him, the former astronaut. I can think of some quick reductions to our national debt by eliminating such a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

After getting such a ridiculous and patronizing response from Transport Canada, I contacted CBC and the resulting interview was carried by CBC Radio across Atlantic Canada. Darrell Mercer, a spokesperson Marine Atlantic, responded to my concerns in an interview. It would have been better if he simply stated – “No Worries! Just Trust Us”. Mr. Baker stated that the whole situation was just an unfortunate incident that was caused by one truck and it should not happen again. That is one heck of a fragile safety system as one truck upset the apple-cart. Just cannot ever see that happening again. It would appear that the advanced course in corporate spin doctoring has a few holes.

It would be far more productive for Marine Atlantic to accept responsibility for a failed system and communicate the targeted improvement. However, the plan here seems to be to insult the intelligence of people who depend on this service. An “unfortunate incident” is what occurs when a motor burns out on one of the unloading doors. However, I can guarantee you that with 500 to 1,000 irate passengers, there would be a Plan B, Plan C and Plan D to get people unloaded. If they had to lift the door by hand that boat would be unloaded. That is because they have experienced that incident before and have properly planned to prevent it.

In comparison, fire fighting procedures, lifeboat procedures and air quality safety procedures are far more important. They are so important that they are highly regulated parameters that are predictable and should be carefully planned for in advance. You do not get “unfortunate incidents” with predictable life threatening events on a boat unless you are utterly complacent or incompetent. In this case, that appears to be a demonstrated fact. These happen to be the disciplined details that keep people alive when these rare emergencies occur.

I intend to pursue this issue until I get some legitimate answers on this important situation. Marine Atlantic moves more than 300,000 passengers every year and is subsidized in excess of 120 million to do so. We should not need a tragedy and subsequent inquiry to ensure that the travelling public is provided a World Class ferry service meeting the standards of 2016. As a taxpayer, I also should not have to spend my time and energy attempting to hold both Marine Atlantic and Transport Canada accountable for performing the roles for which they exist in both a robust and transparent fashion. I would suspect that their response to nullify or undermine this letter and its concerns will receive much more robust efforts than their safety program improvements.

I also suggest that people bring thick scarves for their next crossing in case they are placed on the dreaded and dangerous Deck 5. Apparently, some senior executive at Marine Atlantic did not think that air exchange was as important as carpet when they purchased these used boats.


Ken Cashin

Summerside, PEI

Letter Writer