Bella Bella fuel spill prompts B.C. premier to blast federal government

Clark blasts Ottawa after Bella Bella spill

A fuel barge grounded in Seaforth Channel

VANCOUVER — As crews scramble to contain and clean up a diesel spill in waters off British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest Premier Christy Clark lashed out Friday at the federal government’s inadequate commitment to disaster response on Canada’s West Coast.

Experts in wildlife recovery and oil removal from environmentally sensitive areas are among those dispatched to Bella Bella where a 30-metre tug pushing an empty fuel barge ran aground and sank Thursday.

Bella Bella is located more than 1,150 kilometres northwest of Vancouver and is accessible only by boat or airplane.

The United States registered Nathan E. Stewart was in Seaforth Channel about 20 kilometres west of Bella Bella when it ran aground.

“I have argued for five years now since I became premier that the spill response that we had on our coast is totally inadequate, not just for what some people argue should come if pipelines come from Alberta,” Clark said in Vancouver. “It’s not adequate for what we have now going up and down our coast.”

Clark said B.C.’s marine shipping zones are already busy without considering possible additional traffic for pipelines and liquefied natural gas.

“We need an increased coast guard presence and British Columbia has been cheated by the federal government for decades now when they’ve been spending money on the East Coast in terms of coast guard but not spending it on the West Coast,.” Clark said.

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said in a statement in reply that protection of Canadian waters is a top issue and the federal government is aware of the concerns of coastal communities. 

“The prime minister has mandated my colleagues and I to work to increase marine safety, including augmenting the capacity of the coast guard, improving environmental responses and enhancing partnerships with Indigenous communities,” said LeBlanc.

An incident command report issued Friday by the federal and provincial governments, local First Nations and the tug company stated that two fuel tanks were leaking and that crews had managed to pump out almost 25,000 litres from the tug’s fuel tanks.

The tug, which was loaded with 226,875 litres of diesel, is currently submerged under nine metres of water, with only the mast showing.

It said booming to contain leaking diesel did not stay in place Thursday night due to weather conditions and the empty barge broke away from the tug. The barge is now safely anchored at the mouth of Dundavan Inlet, stated the report.

A boom to contain the fuel was re-established around the tug on Friday.

The weather will also be a factor with a warning of gale-force winds Friday night and Saturday.

A shoreline cleanup team is in the area and Heiltsuk Nation members are providing details of sensitive zones.

First Nations groups and B.C. New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen renewed calls for a tanker ban on B.C.’s North Coast, while the area’s Heiltsuk Nation expressed fears the spill will impact sensitive sea life.

“The Nathan Stewart ran aground in crucial habitat for herring, salmon, clam, kelp and other species vital to our nation’s survival,” said William Gladstone Sr., Heiltsuk Nation director of herring operations, in a letter to the federal and B.C. governments.

Coastal First Nations, an alliance of nine B.C. aboriginal groups, said the spill comes less than a month after the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were in Bella Bella to endorse the Great Bear Rainforest for the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy.

“Now it’s time for the Crown to do its part by dealing with this incident and the management of future tanker traffic on a nation-to-nation basis on the North Coast,” Chairman Kelly Russ said.

Rob Lewis-Manning, president of the B.C. Chamber of Shipping, said risk management planning along B.C.’s coast must involve all levels and government and communities.

“I think the message has been received by the federal government,” he said. 

The Canadian Press

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