By all accounts, it was a routine trip for the Nathan E. Stewart tug. The vessel was returning from Alaska with a crew of seven on a regular fuel run with an empty barge, one it had done many times before.
Seaforth Channel is over a mile wide, but data shows the ship made the fatal error in a fantastic way, veering far off course and running aground on Edge Reef.
It was just after 1am on October 13 when the distress call came in, and by 10am that morning it was clear the vessel was going to sink with over 200,000 litres of diesel fuel aboard.
With its crew of seven safely off the vessel sunk, coming to rest on the bottom of the rocky shores of Edge Reef adjacent to Gale Creek, an area well-known to contain endangered species and frequented by the Heiltsuk for food fishing. It has been devastating for the community.
The Transportation Safety Board won’t comment on the cause of the incident, citing an ongoing investigation that could take up to a year, but many local people familiar with the area believe the pilot may have fallen asleep.
Heiltsuk fisherman Ron Martin has been digging clams in the area for 18 years and knows it like the back of his hand. He says he finds the incident incomprehensible.
“How can seven people go so far wrong?” Martin asked.
In light of the ongoing calls for a tanker ban on the North Coast, the incident has brought a critical eye to the Liberal government’s election promise of a moratorium, which so far they have failed to deliver. For the Heiltsuk, there’s no time like the present.
“We’re continuing to push hard for a tanker ban and I believe it will happen,” said Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett. “We’re committed to making sure it’s meaningful and doesn’t have any escape clauses, so that it can offer powerful protection for the people and the environment of this coast.”
Those escape clauses are being blamed for this latest disaster, which allow these types of vessels to use the Inside Passage under special conditions during inclement weather.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen said the company appeared to be exploiting a loophole in DFO’s regulations, loading the vessel with petroleum products to just below its regulated cap of 10,000 tons. That allowed them to obtain a special waiver from DFO to absolve them of normal requirements to have a local pilot on board while travelling through British Columbia’s waters.
When the Nathan E. Stewart went down Heiltsuk people were the first to respond. They were ill equipped to deal with the disaster, as the Nation only has spill capabilities for their own fuel containers at their docks.
Heiltsuk Tribal Councillor Jess Housty characterized the first 72 hours of federal response efforts as “totally uncoordinated.” She said this created a “much bigger problem that we can’t get a handle on now,” as much of the initial spill was given a chance to escape containment.
While every local resource was deployed and more were activated from nearby Shearwater, it was still nearly 24 hours before additional resources arrived from the nearest Western Canadian Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), located in Prince Rupert.
WCMRC South Coast Area Supervisor Trevor Davis confirmed that there are trained responders in Shearwater but none in Bella Bella. However, plans are now in place to provide training for the Heiltsuk members who have been working on the spill since day one. While plans for more equipment haven’t been verified, Davis said he certainly would support it.
“That’s the debate for the whole BC coast: can you have enough equipment?” said Davis. “We are growing, the industry is changing, and we can certainly do with more equipment and I would support that.”
The Heiltsuk have always opposed tanker traffic in their waters, but Tribal Councillor Travis Hall said that while he believes the community should still be prepared, they will never be able to deal with the impacts of a spill.
“There’s no technology now that will prepare anyone for this type of environment in terms of oil clean up and response,” said Hall. “Heiltsuk position is to have no increased marine traffic in general; the risk is just too great.”
An American pilot was at the helm of the Nathan E. Stewart when it ran aground, and the Pacific Pilotage Authority has now issued interim measures requiring two members on the bridge when passing though Bella Bella and other sensitive areas on the coast. However, Hall says he wants to go a step beyond that.
“This is the only way through in a storm so they will be coming through here,” he said. “We’d like to see local pilots operating these vessels. You don’t take breaks or sleep when you’re transporting volatile material through our territory.”
That volatile material is now costing the Heiltsuk thousands of dollars in lost revenue from their clam fishery and Kirby hundreds of thousands in clean up costs. In a community where unemployment sits at nearly 80 percent and seasonal employment is a way of life, the clam fishery accounted for a large portion of many people’s income.
Hall said that an average of 78,000 lbs. of clams were harvested from Gale Creek every year. They were processed and sold by the local fish plant, and he worries about the effects of the spill on this industry for years to come, as the product may too contaminated to sell or consume for a number of years.
“A good digger could make $700 – $1400 a day,” said Martin. “Sometimes we’d stay out here for weeks with our families, only going in for groceries when we had to.”
DFO Minister Dominic LeBlanc, who visited the community last Sunday, promised compensation from the federal government but Housty says compensation only addresses one aspect.
She said the impacts of the spill have far reaching cultural and spiritual implications for her people, who have lived in the area for over 10,000 years. Chief Slett’s own great-great grandfather was born in Gale Creek in 1841.
Many community members are concerned with the effects of diesel on their food supply and the environment. Diesel is a tricky substance to clean up, for as it spreads it becomes too thin to remove from the surface of the water.
“It’s a challenging product to recover,” said Graham Knox, Director of the Environmental Emergency Program with the Ministry of the Environment. “Once it spreads into a thin layer we can’t collect that.”
Housty is reporting that community members are now seeing “clumps” of diesel floating in certain areas as opposed to a larger sheen which was the norm in the earlier stages.
Containment booms are marginally effective, and the initial hours following the tug sinking saw booms breaking, high tides, and challenging conditions. It was during this time that most of the diesel product likely made its escape into surrounding areas like Gale Creek.
Although over 100,000 litres were pumped out of the tug (it was carrying 223, 831 litres at the time), many of the tanks had been compromised by seawater. A special process to remove the diesel from the water is still underway; so exact numbers won’t be readily available for some time.
Over a decade ago a seiner went on the rocks in a similar area, dumping fuel all over the clam beds below. Martin says it hasn’t been the same since.
“It’s heartbreaking, I don’t know what to think about this place now,” Martin said. “I hear people saying this is nothing, but I know the damage fuel can do.”
There have also been several reports of affected wildlife. Martin said a bay in Gale Creek was littered with dozens of dead crab, and other members are sighting dead salmon in areas several kilometres from the spill.
“There’s more than the eye can see,” he said. “There’s lots of stuff dying out there.”
As another barge prepared to make its way past Bella Bella last Tuesday, this time loaded with petroleum products, Kirby Corporation stopped short of an apology to the Heiltsuk people or a commitment of long-term support to the community.
“We regret that the incident happened,” said Matt Lewis, Kirby General Manager with US West. “I don’t want to commit to anything without seeing where we are. We’ll review all routes that our vessels transit and align those routes with what’s lawfully allowed.”