— The man who once led a local effort to sink a warship in the St. Lawrence River here is cheering a new group's attempt to do the same thing.
But former city councillor Doug Campbell said the latest attempt to create an artificial reef that will draw more scuba divers will have to cross some difficult bureaucratic waters and could risk running aground on the issue of liability.
However, the secretary of the newest group's board of directors said his group has already navigated around that problem.
In the late 1990s and 2000, Campbell was chairman of the St. Lawrence Artificial Reef Association (SARA), which mounted an unsuccessful three-year effort to acquire the HMCS Gatineau and sink it in the river here.
Now, a group called the Eastern Ontario Artificial Reef Association (EOARA) has made a $150,000 bid to buy the 2,800-tonne HMCS Terra Nova, a 372-foot anti-submarine destroyer escort built in 1956, to sink in the St. Lawrence River just west of Brockville.
The plan is to tow the decommissioned vessel, now docked at CFB Halifax, over here and sink it in the river two miles east of Brown's Bay, about 3,000 feet offshore and 130 feet down, by summer 2009.
The group unveiled its plans to the public in Gananoque on Friday.
Proponents believe the $2-million project will generate $8 million in tourism income for eastern Ontario in its first year and attract more than 6,000 divers annually.
EOARA is seeking up to $1.5 million from the federal and provincial governments for the project.
"I'm very pleased that they're doing it and I wish them the absolute best of luck," Campbell said Sunday.
Campbell said his group was ultimately unable to get assurances that, were an unfortunate accident ever to happen to a diver on the artificial reef, SARA members would not be personally liable.
"The problem really was that you couldn't get a yes or a no out of anybody in the government," said Campbell.
"The thing that killed it, in my view, was the question of liability."
A group from Kingston eventually took over SARA's bid for the Gatineau but was unsuccessful, said Campbell, who is willing to share information with EOARA on the latest bid.
Rockport resident Michael Ryan, secretary-treasurer of the six-member EOARA board, said Sunday the group has already got a government agency, which has asked not to be identified, to co-sign on an insurance policy that will fully cover EOARA members for a full year after the ship is sunk.
After that, said Ryan, the wreck reverts to Crown property, just like the other wrecks in the area, so liability is no longer at issue.
Over the weekend, a longtime river watcher also gave the new project a qualified thumbs-up.
Don Ross, executive director of the Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve board of directors, said the EOARA project could be beneficial, as long as the new wreck is monitored for its impact on the river.
Ross suggested on the weekend the divers who visit the wreck could provide those crucial sets of eyes on the ship's effects.
Ross's board oversees the UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve located roughly between Brockville, Gananoque and Westport, which includes St. Lawrence Islands National Park.
Like many federal and provincial officials, Ross wants to make sure the ship does not pose an environmental threat.
"Anyone would have a concern that the boat was entirely cleaned up before it went into the water."
Ross is confident current regulations are strict enough to address this issue, but he hopes the authorities will also monitor the impact this massive wreck would have on the river once it is down.
There are already many steel-hulled wrecks on the bottom of the Great Lakes that could serve as models for this project, said Ross.
And the divers who would visit the battleship could provide authorities with their observations about such things as changes in species on the riverbed, he said.
Overall, said Ross, the EOARA project sounds like a "win-win," bringing the area economic benefits, as long as it is properly monitored.
The project got the enthusiastic backing on the weekend of a Brockville dive shop owner who was also involved with the earlier project.
"It's awesome," said Dive Brockville Adventure Centre owner Helen Cooper, who was the secretary of SARA.
She agrees with supporters' arguments that a new, large wreck would move diver traffic off the area's much older wooden wrecks, which are now feeling the effects of heavy diver traffic.
"It helps preserve our marine heritage."
Cooper is also confident the Terra Nova will be scrubbed clean before it is sunk so it will not create an environmental hazard.
"If anything, it's a benefit to the environment because it provides habitat," said Cooper, noting the large ship will provide many species with shelter and a place to feed, nest and spawn.
In a subsequent e-mail to The Recorder and Times, Cooper said divers would definitely be able to monitor the wreck for Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources.
"We monitor the existing wrecks for changes in conditions and notice any changes in marine life such as the rise and decline of zebra mussels, increased gobies and increase in fresh water sponges," she wrote. "It would be easy to set up a committee of local divers to record specific information for MNR."
EOARA made a presentation to the Upper St. Lawrence Scuba Charter Association at Buds on the Bay Sunday morning and it was well-received, Cooper added.