It has been two weeks since the Nathan E. Stewart, a U.S.-based fuel barge tug, struck ground and sank near Bella Bella, B.C., contaminating the harvest waters of the Heiltsuk First Nation with an estimated 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
During that time coastal residents have watched with dismay as spill response efforts have been hampered repeatedly by unfavourable weather, failed spill containment and even one incident where a spill response ship took on water and itself began to sink.
But the ongoing failure to contain and clean up the spill has been witnessed most closely by members of the Heiltsuk First Nation, who have been on the frontlines of the spill response effort since day one.
Jess Housty, member of the Heiltsuk tribal council, told DeSmog Canada the spill has put much of her community’s regular life on hold, thrusting many individuals into the unfamiliar territory of disaster response.
“That’s been one of the great challenges for us — as a nation we have no particular capacity and expertise around spill response,” Housty said, saying that hasn’t stopped members of her community from stepping in to help response teams from the Canadian Coast Guard and the Western Canadian Marine Response Corporation.
Housty said community members are working on every aspect of spill response from wildlife monitoring to ecological sampling to maintaining and preparing oil spill booms.
The Nation is currently crowdfunding for support to hire experts to continue sampling and monitor environmental and human health impacts of the spill.
“We’re working in a kind of incident command system that makes objective sense but is certainly not a system that reflects our values and the way we would operate and govern a process like this,” Housty said.
“There’s a lot we don’t know. We’re not engineers or spill response technicians.”
“We’re fishermen, we’re harvesters, we’re mariners, we’re people who love the place we come from.”
“We have no great sense of what is still in open water,” Housty said when asked about diesel recovery rates.
“I can tell you how many garbage bags of sorbent pads have been hauled out of the water, but that doesn’t really give you any idea of how soiled they were and how much diesel they’ve picked up.”
She added, “My reports that I’ve been getting every day is they’re not particularly effective unless the diesel is concentrated enough for it to pick up.”
“It’s really hard to put a number to how much.”
Herring are a species of traditional importance for the Heiltsuk First Nation.
“I think it’s really important for the wider world to understand this isn’t just an environmental issue; it’s not just an ecological disaster,” Housty said.
“It is that — don’t get me wrong. But what has been violated is not just the environment. It’s also about food security, it’s our certainty that we can maintain our trade relationship with our relatives in other communities.”
Housty said her community has lost its certainty that they can feast and conduct ceremony with traditional foods.
“And there is a huge ceremonial loss because the things we hold sacred have been violated by this. So for our community, this is not just about cleaning up an environmental disaster, it’s about our whole certainty that we can be Heiltsuk and practice the fullness of our identity in the way we did before.”
“And to have that certainty taken away has introduced a grief into our community that is going to take a very long time to heal.”
“We have several different types of containment booms deployed and sorbent pads deployed as well to try to pick up some of the diesel sheen but as you may have been following we have had really difficult weather conditions,” Housty told DeSmog Canada.
“Four of the last five days we’ve had to stand down small vessels because it’s too challenging for us to operate out there.”