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Empty cruise ship drifting off Newfoundland raises safety, environmental alarms

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - An empty Russian cruise ship was drifting Tuesday toward the open sea off Newfoundland as questions mounted about its safety and why a tugboat was allowed to haul it out of the St. John's harbour in the middle of winter.

The Lyubov Orlova, a 237-passenger vessel about 100 metres in length, has been adrift since its tow line snapped in rough weather last week as it was pulled to the Dominican Republic for scrap.

Transport Canada says it ordered the tugboat Charlene Hunt back to St. John's over safety concerns and was inspecting it.

Department spokesman Steve Bone said Transport Canada, the coast guard, the Natural Resources Department and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board were working together on the Lyubov Orlova.

In an email, he said operators of offshore oil rigs in the area have implemented contingency plans to deal with potential collisions from floating objects, such as icebergs and vessels that have lost power. He did not elaborate on what actions those contingency plans include.

Bone said the Lyubov Orlova was about 270 kilometres southeast of St. John’s on Tuesday night.

A source said Tuesday evening that the ship had drifted about 40 kilometres from the Hibernia offshore oil platform, which is about 315 kilometres southeast of St. John's, and a supply boat was headed to the Lyubov Orlova to keep watch.

ExxonMobil Canada could not be reached for comment on the Hibernia platform.

Bone also played down the environmental risk posed by the drifting ship, saying the coast guard "advises that there is virtually no risk of pollution from the Lyubov Orlova."

The owner of a vessel "is always responsible for its movements," he added.

The ill-fated Lyubov Orlova was named for the beloved Russian actress best known for the 1934 comedy "Jolly Fellows." It was a popular Arctic cruise ship before Canadian authorities seized it in St. John's in September 2010 as part of a lawsuit by Cruise North Expeditions against its Russian owners. The company was trying to recoup cash for the cost of a trip it cancelled due to technical problems.

The ship's mostly Russian crew, who hadn't been paid for months, was stranded in St. John's for six weeks as local residents offered everything from food to cigarettes to Internet access. The Russian government eventually helped fly most of the workers home.

The increasingly derelict, listing ship sat in the harbour for more than two years. She was bought last year by Iranian scrap merchant Hussein Humayuni for $275,000 in a Federal Court process in Montreal.

The St. John's Port Authority confirmed that Humayuni hired the Charlene Hunt to tow his ship to a scrapyard in the Dominican Republic. He was in the capital of Santo Domingo on Tuesday and could not be reached.

The long journey started last Wednesday but halted the next day when the tug cable snapped. Efforts to reattach it failed, and Transport Canada ordered the Charlene Hunt back to St. John's on Sunday.

It isn't clear if it will return to try again.

Mac Mackay, a longtime ship watcher and marine blogger in Halifax, questions why the Charlene Hunt was tasked with pulling the Lyubov Orlova — especially in January's turbulent seas.

Mackay cites another major incident 17 months ago in the waters off Nova Scotia.

The MV Miner ran aground on Scaterie Island off Cape Breton on Sept. 20, 2011, while being towed to a scrapyard in Turkey. Federal and provincial officials have since pointed fingers at each other over who should pay for the cleanup.

"If the Lyubov Orlova does pile up on the shore, it'll be interesting to know whose responsibility it is to clean it up," Mackay said. "If it sinks in the ocean ... there's bound to be some pollution.

"It really is a drifting accident waiting to happen."

Jacqueline Savitz is deputy vice-president of U.S. campaigns for Oceana, billed as the largest international group focused solely on ocean conservation. She called for quick action by Canada if the ship's owner won't step up.

Besides the risk of collision if the vessel drifts into shipping lanes, there's significant environmental risk if it sinks, she said.

"This ship probably still contains lots of toxic chemicals, electronics, oil probably. Those are all things we want to keep out of the ocean."

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