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‘Nothing Has Changed’: B.C.’s Botched Oil Spill Response Haunts First Nation

On October 13, just after 1 a.m, and only eight months after British Columbia signed the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements — set in place to protect the world’s largest coastal temperate rainforest — the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat ran aground near Bella Bella.

Even though the 10,000-tonne fuel barge the tugboat was pushing was empty, the wreck managed to release more than 100,000 litres of diesel into the heart of the Heiltsuk First Nation’s traditional territory.

Now, six months after the American tug-barge on route from Alaska ran aground, the Heiltsuk First Nation has released a 75-page report on the Nathan E. Stewart oil spill that exposes the failures of Canada’s oil spill response system and a refusal from both the government and the company to share information with those affected by the spill.

“The first 48 hours were critical for mitigation,” Heiltsuk First Nation Chief Marilyn Slett told DeSmog Canada. “What the crew reported to us during interviews was that there was confusion about who was taking charge at the incident site.”

The First Nation’s integrated resource manager learned about the spill when he received a telephone call from the B.C. Ministry of Environment around 4:30 a.m. on October 13th. Vessels were on their way to Gale Passage by 6:30 that morning.

The report highlights delays in equipment arriving to the site, delays in deploying booms and an insufficient number of booms being made available.

Heiltsuk members who acted as first responders were not provided with any safety equipment or briefing on the health impacts related to the exposure to diesel, which is highly toxic.

The area most affected by the diesel leak, Gale Passage, is an important harvesting and ceremonial site and is considered a “breadbasket” of the Heiltsuk community. Since the spill the Heiltsuk has been forced to close its clam fishery.

It took responders over 30 days to remove the sunken tugboat from the water. By then the federal government had announced the “Oceans Protection Plan,”  which pledged $1.5 billion over five years to increase marine safety, marine oil spill cleanup research and restore marine ecosystems across Canada.

But according to Slett, the plan doesn’t amount to the world-class oil spill response regime British Columbians have been promised for years (a promise Premier Christy Clark reiterated in the wake of the Nathan E. Stewart spill).

“Nothing has changed since this spill,” Slett said.

“As it stands today, if something was to happen, we’re still under the same spill response regime.”

Slett added that, according to the Heiltsuk experience, “a real spill-response regime does not exist.”

One of the key-findings from the investigation was that the tugboat had been waived from requiring an onboard local pilot. And it appears that the tug replacing the Nathan E. Stewart is operating with the same waiver. Even though the tugboat repeatedly travelled through their territory, the Heiltsuk didn’t know about the waiver system until after the incident.

The proposed federal ban on oil tankers on the North Coast of B.C. also wouldn’t have prevented a vessel like the Nathan E. Stewart from traversing Heiltsuk water, because it falls just below the capacity limit proposed by the feds.

Since the Nathan E. Stewart spill, B.C. has approved the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, which would greatly increase the amount of oil tanker traffic in B.C. waters.

One of the conditions of approval — “world class oil spill response” — is something the province also failed to demonstrate in the wake of the 2015 Marathassa bunker fuel spill in Vancouver’s English Bay.

A report by West Coast Environmental Law in 2016 found the province’s oil response “overhaul” was seriously lacking.

“Changes that we recommend include that the policy level planning needs to be taken out of the hand of industry and led by both the provincial government and First Nations, with the opportunity for community input,” explained Gavin Smith, staff counsel at West Coast Environmental Law.

The report also recommended a citizens advisory council to allow for public input from people with localized knowledge.

Given that First Nations are often the first responders, Slett says First Nations and communities should be included in all decisions related to the movement of oil products through their land, especially oil spill response systems.

“We live on the coast. These are our traditional territories, we know the areas, we know the tides, we know the weather patterns, and we’re the first ones out there,” she said.

“What we can take from this and what we would like to see happen in conversations with B.C. and Canada is a recognized role for First Nations as first responders.”

Image: Diesel spill from the Nathan E. Stewart. Photo: Heiltsuk Tribal Council

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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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