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I’m Still Waiting for an Interview With a Government Scientist About the Diesel Spill Near Bella Bella

I’m irritated today. Maybe it’s a case of the Mondays. Maybe it’s because B.C.’s pipeline incident webpage has been down for over a month. Or maybe it’s because the amount of oil spilled from a pipeline into an Alberta wetland, first reported on October 6, remains undetermined.

But I think the real reason is that a media request I placed with the B.C. government on Thursday last week — to speak with a scientist about the barge that ran aground on the central coast last week and its tug that’s leaking diesel into Heiltsuk territory— has yet to be fulfilled.

Not that I’ve been ignored. No, on the contrary, I’ve received helpful messages along the lines of ‘don’t lose hope, Carol! We’re going to connect you with a real, live scientist soon. Very soon!’

Yeah, um, not holding my breath.

Maybe I’ve become a little too accustomed to the improved access journalists now have to federal scientists. But in B.C. it remains a different story.

Although I knew the name and e-mail address of the scientist I needed to speak to about the diesel spill and was able to contact him directly on the day of the incident, he said my interview request had to be routed through communications staff.

And so it was.

What will likely happen now, in an all-too-familiar fashion, is the interview will be delayed until after the media wave — which has raised questions about the hazards of oil transport on the coast and government’s inadequate spill response measures — has all but passed.

That's a shame, because local community members and the public would benefit from knowing what a taxpayer-funded Ministry of Environment expert could tell us about the nature of the spill and efforts to clean it up.

In the meantime, the Heiltsuk First Nation, which has already borne the burden of being first responders to the spill, is also playing the role of chief information outpost, fielding calls from journalists like me amid generating press releases, taking media calls and keeping their community informed.

Jess Housty, a Heiltsuk elected tribal councillor, has been tirelessly informing journalists, the public and her community through Twitter and Facebook.

Along with her brother, William Housty, who is leading containment and clean up efforts, chief tribal councillor Marilyn Slett and other members of the community, Housty has been saddled with the important work of describing what is happening in the area — like where the sunken tug and lingering diesel fuel are, what is being done to contain the damage and what is at stake for local wildlife and the community.

The Heiltsuk reported the spill occurred in an area critical for 25 marine species. Indeed, the spill has directly impacted the Heiltsuk’s clams beds that were just about to open for fall harvest.

The Heiltsuk aren’t strangers to natural resource tragedy. The community was at the centre of a major battle with the federal government over its right to fish for herring, a tradition it had relied on since time immemorial.

By the time the nation’s case had made it through the courts, the commercial fishing industry, with the sanction of the federal government and their exorbitantly expensive licences, had all but decimated the herring stocks.

That fishery only partially reopened earlier this year.

Now, with the ongoing spill containment and clean up in Heiltsuk territory, the community is once again bearing a disproportionate burden, stepping in where the federal and provincial governments have failed.

Premier Christy Clark used the diesel spill as an opportunity to blame the federal government for not protecting coastal waters.

Tweet: .@ChristyClarkBC calls out fed govt re: #NathanEStewart, delays BC #oilspill plan until after #BCelxn17 http://bit.ly/2epTxKf #bcpoliBut Clark’s own government put off the release of a provincial marine oil spill plan until after the 2017 election.

Go figure.

Image: The tug of the Nathan E. Stewart barge partially submerged and leaking diesel fuel in Heiltsuk water. Photo: West Coast Marine Response Corporation handout

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

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).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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