A number of “failures” by the Government of Canada’s emergency response measures and a lack of information provided to the Heiltsuk by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada in the Nathan E. Stewart tug and barge sinking incident are detailed in a just-released investigation report released by the Heiltsuk Tribal Council on Thursday, April 6.
The incident, occurring in October 2016 in Seaforth Channel along the central coast near Bella Bella, resulted in more than 110,000 litres of diesel fuel being leaked into the water, with response teams from Prince Rupert’s Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) attending after getting the call.
The report, 75 pages in all, emphasizes the need for local pilots aboard ships that may not know their way around the central coast’s waters. The Nathan E. Stewart was an American-owned tug and barge, with U.S. company Kirby Offshore Marine owning the vessel.
The tribal council stated the importance of the vicinity to the Heiltsuk First Nation’s food source and cultural significance.
“That day changed everyone’s life – everyone was grieving. Gale Creek is where we harvest food for the community, it’s the site of one of our ancient tribal groups, it’s where our people go for ceremonial practices,” stated Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett in a news release.
“Throughout this disaster, government didn’t cooperate with us and didn’t want to answer our questions, so we needed to conduct our own investigation into what happened for our community members.”
Among the grievances the tribal council outlined in the report are a lack of coordinated training for area emergency response personnel, a lack of spill response materials, ineffective booms and delays in employing them and confusion over leadership duties in the response measures immediately after the Oct. 13 sinking.
The report includes a lengthy list of communication attempts made by the Heiltsuk to government organizations and Kirby, with requests for the vessel’s logbook, black box, crew statements, training records, vessel history and more that were denied or not responded to. It claims that Coast Guard personnel were aware of the First Nation’s concerns and desire to keep fuel barges away from the waters near Bella Bella.
“The Heiltsuk were never consulted by Canada on whether we agreed with the Nathan E. Stewart transporting oil through our territories, or with its exemption from having a local pilot. The way Canada handled this situation does not reflect the approach the federal government says it wants to take in developing a nation-to-nation relationship,” stated Slett.
The release adds that an emergency harvesting closure enforced by Fisheries Canada is still in effect in Gale Creek – a popular commercial fishing area and ceremonial space.
Following the sinking, both B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have called the response “inadequate” and “unacceptable” respectively.
Legislation is expected to come by spring 2017 on a crude oil tanker moratorium on the North Coast, including the Great Bear coastline – waters that include those traversed by the Nathan E. Stewart.