Kelly Brown was awoken at 4:30 a.m. on October 13, 2016, by the kind of phone call nobody ever wants to receive: an environmental catastrophe was unfolding a 20-minute boat ride up the coast from his home in the community of Bella Bella.
“I had to call this guy back because I wanted to make sure — because I’m half asleep — wanted to make sure that I heard him right, that there’s a tug that ran aground in our territory,” he recalls.
Brown is the director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management department, the branch of the Heiltsuk government in charge of the environmental stewardship of the First Nation’s traditional territory.
Two hours later he was on site with a team ready to respond.
“It was total chaos,” says hereditary chief Harvey Humchitt.
The Nathan E. Stewart, a 30-metre tugboat owned by the Kirby Corporation based in Houston, Texas, had failed to make a turn as it headed south. Instead, it ploughed into a reef. The barge it was pushing — a fuel barge with a capacity of 10,000 tons of fossil fuels, but which was mercifully empty — was caught on the reef while boats and ships of all sizes gathered to watch helplessly.
“No one knew who was giving the orders,” Brown says. The captain of the Nathan E. Stewart had declined aid from the three Coast Guard vessels at the scene.
“We could hear the barge banging against the rock,” he says. “When we got there, there was already some fuel in the water, but not a lot.”
That quickly changed when the tug sank. The fuel started coming faster and faster; in the end, more than 110,000 litres of diesel fuel, along with more than 2,000 litres of lubricant, were released into the fast-moving currents of Seaforth Channel.
That milky, foul-smelling mixture washed ashore along the coast, coating the shoreline where 50 people made their living harvesting butter and manila clams.
“About 90 per cent of the [commercial] harvest comes out of Gale Creek,” says Russell Windsor, who made a living digging clams there prior to the spill.
The clam harvest was cancelled last year. This year, it likely won’t go ahead either, and it’s unknown how long it could remain closed.
The loss was more than economic. Gale Creek is also a site of huge cultural significance to the community.
“When I was younger I was brought out here to learn how to fish, hunt, clam dig,” says Windsor, floating at the exact spot from which he watched the spill. “This is one of the learning grounds for the Heiltsuk people… You can feed all of Bella Bella right now with all the food that can be harvested here.”
No one has brought children to Gale Creek to learn to harvest this year. Other sites around the territory are being looked at for clam harvesting, but Brown doubts enough could be gathered to replace what has been compromised by the spill.
“It’ll be one year officially that this particular vessel ran ashore,” Brown says. “And we’ve been paying for it since.”
Slow Response, Little Follow-Through
The accident happened at 1 a.m. Witnesses saw the fuel leaking at 5:30 a.m. By 6:30, Heiltsuk first responders were on scene, but lacked the booms and pads that would be capable of containing and absorbing the diesel fuel.
The official responders, a team subcontracted by Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), meanwhile, were dispatched from Prince Rupert. But they didn’t arrive on scene until 7 p.m., 16 hours after the accident happened. By then, it was getting dark, and nothing could be done until the next day.
“There’s no ‘world-class’ spill response here,” Brown says, referring to the former Conservative government’s claim in 2015, which was intended to assuage fears of a spill along the Central Coast and help build social licence for oil pipelines from Alberta.
That lack of a response has bled into the ongoing monitoring of the health of the spill site. A week after the accident, Kirby gave the First Nation $250,000 to assist in cleanup efforts. But Brown says the last time the company conducted an assessment of the environmental health of the site was December 2016, just a month after the sunken tug was recovered.
He estimates the cost of a comprehensive assessment of the current and long-term impacts of the spill will be over $500,000.
In the interim, the First Nation says Kirby and the provincial government have been negotiating in secret to determine responsibility for, and scope of, future environmental impact assessments.
The Heiltsuk First Nation plans to pursue legal action.
“Since this nightmare began, the polluter and provincial and federal governments have ignored our questions and environmental concerns, our collaboration attempts, and our rights as indigenous people,” said Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett in a statement released to media. “We have no choice but to turn to the courts.”
The First Nation is seeking damages for the incident, including its effect on the harvests in Gale Creek and all the associated losses that has meant for the community.
Speaking to the Globe and Mail, Kirby said it would rather “work to find pragmatic solutions” than “engage in media battles and litigation” — but the First Nation shot back with a statement Friday morning, saying it, too, wants to find pragmatic solutions. It just has a different definition of “pragmatic” — the First Nation wants comprehensive assessments of the impacts on human, natural and cultural values.
“It is difficult for Heiltsuk to have faith in Kirby discussing pragmatic solutions when they won’t engage in a full impact assessment, and has left Heiltsuk with a $140,000 bill for sampling that they conducted earlier this year,” Slett said in the second statement.
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It also wants the government and industry to better prepare for future incidents. From the wrong booms being deployed too late, to unclear leadership on scene, to a lack of safety equipment and training, the First Nation says it has learned it can no longer rely on outside parties in an environmental crisis.
The Nation has decided to take its defence of its own territory a step further.
“We’re trying to work on setting up a marine response centre close to Bella Bella.”
Windsor has already taken it upon himself to scrutinize the marine traffic heading through Heiltsuk waters, taking note of their contents and crews. He says he has seen Kirby Corporation vessels near Bella Bella since the spill.
“The Nathan E. Stewart taught the Heiltsuk a great lesson about oil spills,” Humchitt says.
*Updated October 13, 2017 4:07pm pst. This article previoulsy quoted an individual who claimed Kirby corporation had begun passing through Heiltsuk waters at night in unidentified vessels. We have since found we could not verify this claim and have removed the statement as a result.