Haida Gwaii diesel spill

Haida-owned forest products company spills 4,500 litres of diesel off Haida Gwaii

Work is being done in Dinan Bay to prevent contaminants from reaching rivers where sockeye salmon run

Crews are responding to a spill of an estimated 4,500 litres of diesel off the coast of Haida Gwaii, B.C.

The spill was reported to the province at 8:11 a.m. on Wednesday, according to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. 

A valve feeding diesel to an electrical generator on a barge failed overnight on April 22, between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., causing fuel to leak onto the deck and into the water near the mouth of Dinan Bay (Diinan Kahlii), according to Taan Forest, the local forest products company responsible for the spill.

Taan Forest, which is owned by the Haida nation, is taking the lead in managing the spill by doing preventive work to protect the mouths of nearby rivers, especially those where sockeye salmon are expected to return, Jason Alsop (Gaagwiis), elected president of the Haida, told The Narwhal.

“There’s a lot of concern with any contaminants that go into the ocean or any risks to our river system, to our salmon and food,” he said.

“But we’re a lot more prepared than we have been in years past working on building up our local [spill response] capacity.”

As soon as the spill was discovered, Taan Forest said booms and sorbent pads were deployed onto the water. Additional booms, pads and protective equipment have also been sent to the spill site by the Coast Guard on a floatplane. Spill response contractors are also on site cleaning up, an Environment Ministry spokesperson told The Narwhal via email. 

In a statement, Taan Forest said “diesel is non-persistent, meaning it dissipates rapidly” and the company estimated as much as 75 per cent of the spill evaporated after roughly 12 hours.

The company is part of a virtual command unit established to respond to the spill. Members of the unit, which also includes the Council of the Haida Nation, the Canadian Coast Guard and the B.C. Environment Ministry, are meeting via teleconference due to the coronavirus, the company stated in the release. Federal authorities from Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada are also involved. 

Biologists will be on site collecting ongoing samples of water, soil and marine life to assess impacts and target clean-up efforts, which will likely last weeks.

The National Aerial Surveillance Program is conducting daily flights over the spill location to continue monitoring and according to Taan Forest, “current modelling shows that the full plume is expected to last until approximately Sunday.” 

The Dinan Bay diesel spill is small compared with the 2016 diesel spill off the coast of Bella Bella, B.C., in the territory of the Heiltsuk First Nation, which saw more than 220,000 litres of diesel fuel released into the water. The Bella Bella spill launched calls for greater spill response capabilities in remote communities along the B.C. coast.

Why the Heiltsuk Nation wants to establish its own oil spill response centre

Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans Society, said diesel spills are common along the B.C. coast and although this one is minor in comparison to catastrophic incidents on waters in the past, it doesn’t mean its impacts won’t be felt.

“Because [diesel] floats on the surface almost entirely, any creature that uses the surface of the water could be impacted, so the concern would be for feathered friends and for insects that are hatching off,” she said. “It may interfere with herring spawn if they had been so fortunate to have any.”

One main concern she noted is tracking where the diesel is carried off, which is hard to pinpoint without accurate ocean currents and wind data. It’s also possible for diesel to travel rivers with the tide and make contact with the gravel bottom, which can prevent evaporation.

Wristen also said the public must be warned of all potential contamination of food resources in the area.

SkeenaWild Conservation Trust executive director Greg Knox’s primary worry is the salmon. Dinan Bay is a part of the Masset Inlet, which contains the Yakoun River, known to be the biggest salmon producing system in Haida Gwaii. 

“Those young salmon will be coming up the river right now and use that inlet to grow before they head out to the open ocean [to Alaska], so they will be exposed to that,” he said, adding it’s naive to think diesel will just evaporate like gasoline.

“The biggest concern is how toxic this is during their early-life stages. It can impact their sense of smell and potentially growth rates, which could make them more susceptible to predators.”

Misty MacDuffee, wild salmon program director at Raincoast Conservation Foundation, shared similar fears. She said young salmon are currently under a lot of stress from smoltification (moving from fresh water to salt water) and are vulnerable to exposure, which can lead to death, lowering their numbers and putting their species at risk.

“Even though diesel is less persistent than crude oils, that doesn’t mean it can’t do damage in the short term. The lighter components are acutely toxic,” she said in an email to The Narwhal.

“It’s very discouraging when these events happen in places where people are trying to protect or restore salmon populations.”

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That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

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