The grounding of a fuel barge near Bella Bella is raising fresh concerns about B.C.’s ability to respond to marine oil spills as a tug releases diesel fuel into the traditional waters of the Heiltsuk First Nation — and oil spill response crews have still not arrived on scene more than 15 hours after the accident.
The Nathan E. Stewart, a 10,000-ton tanker barge owned by Texas-based Kirby Corporation, ran aground around 1 a.m. Thursday in Seaforth Channel near Gale Pass on Athlone Island.
Although the barge itself was empty, three fuel tanks for the 100-foot tug powering the vessel were damaged and hold an estimated 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel, according to a statement from the Heiltsuk First Nation.
“A spill in this area is problematic because it’s an area where our clam harvesters do a lot of commercial digging,” Jess Housty, councillor for the Heiltsuk First Nation, told DeSmog Canada.
Diesel Spill ‘Not Even Close to Being Contained’
Five Heiltsuk vessels responded to the grounded tug in the early hours of Thursday morning and three Coast Guard vessels are also at the spill site working to contain the release.
Emergency responders from the Western Canadian Marine Corporation, a private oil spill response company, are en route to the spill location from Prince Rupert. The response crews include a mobile skimming vessel, two boom skiffs and a response barge which spokesperson Michael Lowry, told DeSmog Canada will arrive around 6pm this evening.
"We have equipment caches all along the coast and we train local contractors along the coast," Lowry said, adding some emergency responders were on scene before 11am this morning.
Housty told DeSmog Canada she worries the primary oil spill response vessels, which are traveling from more than 300 kilometres away, won’t arrive soon enough to protect marine life from uncontained diesel fuel.
Housty said her community set up a containment boom from the community dock to try to limit the spread of fuel to sensitive clam beds.
She added the Nathan E. Stewart tug had a spill kit on board but that the containment boom it carried was barely large enough to encircle the tug. Coast Guard vessels had ten sections of boom measuring 50 feet each.
That is far from enough to manage the spill, Housty said. “It’s not even close to being contained.”
Housty said U.S.-based barges like the Nathan E. Stewart are exempt from some regulatory standards if they carry less than 10,000 tons of fuel, including a requirement to have a pilot on board while traversing Canadian waters.
“It doesn’t sound like this vessel was regulated strongly enough,” Housty said.
Regulation for marine oil spill response rests with the federal government, Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans Society, told DeSmog Canada. But much of that responsibility has been shirked off to industry itself, she said.
“The owner of the vessel is responsible to have a spill response service in place,” Wristen said. “But that’s a real problem on most of the coast because the current caches of marine response equipment are either in Prince Rupert or Vancouver and there’s a heck of a lot of coast in between.”
Wristen said poor response time in instances like this allows for oil to dissipate in marine environments.
“This is diesel, it’s a very light fuel. Oil spreads very quickly on the surface of water and unless a ship itself is carrying enough equipment to boom the area — which is rare — it’s very unlikely you can protect shoreline.”
Lack of Emergency Response Strain on Community
According to Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department director Kelly Brown diesel fuel from the spill has already made its way to land.
“It’s really bad out here. A lot of fuel is on the beach already, and fuel is in the water,” she said.
“The initial spill response has been totally inadequate. The first responding vessels were not equipped to deal with a spill, and had to return to town to gather more gear. The Heiltsuk are providing our own equipment because what responders have been able to provide so far is insufficient.”
Wristen said there is an urgent need for industry to coordinate oil spill response with communities along the west coast.
“This highlights the need to do spill response planning that involves communities that are sufficiently trained.”
Wristen said there is a big role for government to play in integrating industry and community spill response capabilities.
“We don’t have any of that kind of planning in B.C.” she said, adding, “It’s very different in the States, though.”
Wristen said the Exxon Valdez disaster dramatically changed the way industry and communities in the U.S. cooperate in the planning and supervision of oil operations.
“People realized they needed to be involved in the planning,” Wristen said. “It took many years but they have an active advisory council that involves community and industry stakeholders to talk through these issues to ensure industry is properly regulated and supervised so those regulations are followed.”
Fuel Spill in Heiltsuk Marine Breadbasket
Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett told DeSmog Canada diesel fuel is notoriously difficult to clean up.
“Looking at this, we know from our neighbours to the north, the Gitga’at are still affected 10 years later from the sinking of the Queen of the North,” Slett said.
“This spill is in a breadbasket for our community and going forward this is going to have a long term impact on our community sustenance.”
The fuel spill has contaminated water that is home to 25 important species the Heiltsuk harvest, according to a Heiltsuk Traditional Use Study that is currently being conducted by the nation.
Manila clam beds in the area provide the Heiltsuk with an estimated $150,000 annual income.
Housty told DeSmog Canada the spill is precisely what her community has been fighting for years to prevent but without success.
“It’s infuriating that you have levels of government who are making decisions from Victoria or Ottawa who are treating this like an academic or political exercise when there are communities who have so much more at stake than anyone realizes,” Housty said.
“This is a place where we’re three weeks from the opening of a commercial clam fishery where our community members are expecting to participate in commercial clam harvest to get their families through Christmas.”
“None of these realities are understood by these decision makers in government or industry offices.”
Chief Councillor: ‘Complete Nightmare for Our Community’
Slett said the emergency responders will now be focused on a salvage operation “because the tug has completely sunk.”
“This is a complete nightmare for our community,” Slett told DeSmog Canada. “We’re working to mitigate what we can but the damage has been done.”
Slett said this kind of incident is precisely what her community raise concerns about at the joint review panel hearings for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
Those hearings brought the issue of increased oil tanker traffic off the rugged coast of B.C. to the public’s attention. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to ban oil tanker traffic on B.C.’s north coast — something he has been dragging his feet on doing.
Housty said this fuel spill has reignited calls for a legislated tanker ban on the coast, but said that won’t be enough to prevent accidents like the one unfolding in Heiltsuk waters.
“A lot of the feedback that we’re getting on social media is this is why we need a tanker ban on the coast but that wouldn’t even prevent this kind of thing from happening.”
“This tanker ban is being legislated to protect the coast but there are people actively lobbying to limit what that ban includes,” Housty said.
Housty said that ban, as it’s currently being discussed, won’t cover fuel barges like the Nathan E. Stewart, which ferries petroleum products between B.C. and Alaska.
Slett said more has to be done to protect the communities impacted by the movement of petroleum products off the B.C. coast.
“We’ve been talking a lot about this oil tanker moratorium and I know there’s been a lot of discussion on what it will cover but this incident proves that anything we do here has to protect the integrity of the ecosystems, of the marine life, of the coast,” Slett said.
“It must protect the lives of the people who live here and derive their sustenance from the natural environment.”
Image credit: West Coast Marine Response Corporation