It was an accident many people on the Central Coast have been saying was just a matter of time. Early last Thursday morning a tug pushing a massive fuel barge ran aground near Bella Bella in the heart of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest
The barge, which has the capacity to carry 52,000 barrels of oil, was empty when it hit Edge Reef off the northern tip of Athlone Island early Thursday, but the tug Nathan E. Stewart contained an estimated 60,000 gallons of diesel.
Heiltsuk elected Chief Marilyn Slett says the tug sank completely just before 10 a.m., and that the Nation’s most recent estimate is that it has spilled more than 200,000 litres of fuel, threatening precious clam beds and sensitive marine habitat.
“It’s our worst nightmare,” Chief Slett said after coming out of an emergency meeting at the band office late in the day. “This is an area where we harvest up to 25 species … things like clams, herring spawn on kelp, it’s a migration area for salmon,” she said. “Words can’t express how I’m feeling right now.”
She said last year about 50,000 pounds of manila clams were harvested from beaches there.
“We are due to start that harvest in about three weeks, so it’s really going to devastate the local economy here,” Ms. Slett said.
On Friday, Fisheries and Oceans Canada closed the fisheries in the area, which came as no surprise to the Heiltsuk, which said last Thursday it was worried about the risk the spill would pose to local clam beds.
The response to the spill has been criticized already, with many people on the scene stating it took too long to deploy and that the necessary resources were lacking.
In a statement, the Canadian Coast Guard said the accident was reported at 1:13 a.m. The CCG ships Bartlett and John P. Tully responded and all seven crew members were rescued from the tug, with no injuries.
The barge, owned by Texas-based Kirby Corporation, ran aground just after 1am, according to a Heiltsuk media release.
According to Michael Lowry, a spokesperson from Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), the company with the contract to respond to fuel spills on the BC coast, local contractors came on the scene at approximately 11am that morning.
Additional resources – including a mobile skimming vessel, a pair of boom skiffs, a work boat and a barge with response trailers – were dispatched from Prince Rupert that morning but estimated travel time was 22 hours.
The accident has shaken the Heiltsuk community to its core and turned the spotlight back on the issues of tankers on the North Coast.
“Two weeks ago we had the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visiting this community to highlight the global significance of this area,” said North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice. “Premier Christy Clark has championed oil and gas projects and the so-called “world class oil spill response.” This is nowhere near world class anything.”
Slett reiterated this point, saying that neither the Coast Guard nor the tug boat’s crew were able to contain the spilled fuel because of a shortage of equipment.
“This is absolutely devastating news and a true tragedy for Heiltsuk Nation and the sensitive and unique natural environment of the region. The CCRD Board stands with Heiltsuk Nation in their efforts,” said CCRD Chair Alison Sayers. “We also call on the Prime Minister to ban all oil tanker traffic in the Inside Passage, and to commit resources to creating a truly world class response to oceanic spills in Canada. Right now spill response capabilities on our remote and intricate coast are nowhere near sufficient.”
This is all cause for serious concern from the Heiltsuk, re-igniting calls for a proposed North Coast tanker ban to be implemented quickly – and for the scope to include such fuel barges, which have been quietly transiting these waters for years.
At press time severe weather had complicated efforts to salvage both the tug, which is reported to be sitting on the bottom of the ocean, and the remaining diesel fuel its carrying.
A process, called “hot tapping” is underway and aims to remove more than 200,000 litres of diesel fuel still aboard the Nathan E. Stewart.
“There are primary and secondary booms that are insuring that no new fuel is being leaked from the tug is contaminating Heiltsuk waters,” said Jess Housty, an elected tribal councillor for the First Nation. “But we are still struggling to contain the diesel that was spilled.”
North Coast MP Nathan Cullen said that there a simply too many “loopholes” in current government policy that allow for a lot more traffic than people realize.
He noted that 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 tonnes. 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.
Cullen says spill responses times and current DFO regulations around fuel shipping along BC’s coast are woefully inadequate. “While fuel was already washing up on the beaches, local residents were told it would be nearly a full 24 hours before crews from Western Canada Marine Response would be on-site. That’s not ‘world class’ – that’s simply unacceptable.”
Cullen said he has been waiting for a year for Trudeau to fulfill his election promise of banning tanker traffic on the central and north coast, and believes that is long enough.
“This is a stirring reminder that the north coast oil tanker moratorium cannot be legislated fast enough,” said Slett. “We must take note, however, that tanker barges like this might not even be included in the ban. The ban needs to be complete, and spill response must be improved.”