A year af­ter fuel spill: ‘We are on our own’

Times Colonist - - The Capital / B.c. - DIRK MEISSNER

A rich marine har­vest ground for a First Na­tion near the Great Bear Rain­for­est re­mains closed to shell fish­ing one year af­ter a tug ran aground, spilling more than 100,000 litres of fuel into Seaforth Chan­nel.

Chief Mar­i­lyn Slett of the Heilt­suk First Na­tion in the small com­mu­nity of Bella Bella said Thurs­day that the sink­ing of the 30-me­tre tug Nathan E. Stewart on Oct. 13, 2016, has had dev­as­tat­ing so­cial, cul­tural and eco­nomic im­pacts on her peo­ple.

She said her First Na­tion wants an­swers about the long-term ef­fects of the fuel spill, but they are get­ting lit­tle as­sis­tance from the B.C. and fed­eral gov­ern­ments and the tug­boat com­pany, Tex­as­based Kirby Corp.

Slett said when the tug was pulled from the water about a month af­ter it sank and the fuel spill was con­tained, govern­ment en­vi­ron­ment of­fi­cials and com pany sal­vage crews left. “Largely, since ev­ery­thing has sort of packed up … deal­ing with the post-spill and long-term ef­fects, [it] has been largely ra­dio si­lence,” she said. “We are on our own.” Slett said nei­ther level of govern­ment ap­pears in­ter­ested in con­duct­ing re­views of long-term health, so­cial and eco­nomic im­pacts of the spill. The Heilt­suk are pre­par­ing to do their own study, which she said could cost up to $500,000.

“We rely on healthy re­sources and we rely on be­ing able to har­vest from the sea for our way of life, for our econ­omy,” Slett said.

B.C. En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Ge­orge Hey­man was not avail­able for an in­ter­view, but in a state­ment he said im­prove­ments in spill re­sponses and re­cov­ery are needed and First Na­tions must be in­cluded in the process.

The govern­ment is seek­ing Heilt­suk in­put into plans to re­cover from the spill, he added.

“While fund­ing for ship-source spills is a fed­eral re­spon­si­bil­ity, we are open to work­ing with the [Heilt­suk] and the fed­eral govern­ment on ad­di­tional fed­eral and pro­vin­cial reg­u­la­tory pro­vi­sions to ad­dress all as­pects of re­sponse and re­cov­ery,” Hey­man said.

The fed­eral govern­ment and Kirby Corp. were not avail­able for com­ment on Thurs­day.

A fi­nal sit­u­a­tion re­port signed last Novem­ber by the Heilt­suk, the fed­eral and B.C. gov­ern­ments found the Nathan E. Stewart was loaded with 237,262 litres of diesel and tow­ing an empty fuel barge when it ran aground.

More than 107,000 litres of diesel and 2,240 litres of lu­bri­cants, in­clud­ing gear, hy­draulic and lube oils, were re­leased into the ocean, cre­at­ing an oily pur­ple and yel­low sheen on the water and beaches around the spill site.

Slett said the tug ran aground about 12 kilo­me­tres west of Bella Bella near the mouth of Gale Creek, a prime seafood har­vest­ing and fish­ing area for the Heilt­suk. The area has been closed since Oct. 14, 2016.

A sep­a­rate re­port re­leased by the Heilt­suk last April crit­i­cized Canada’s emer­gency re­sponse mea­sures in the hours af­ter the ground­ing of the tug.

The fed­eral govern­ment did not re­spond to the crit­i­cism at the time but said it would meet with the Heilt­suk to re­view what they have col­lec­tively learned from the in­ci­dent.

The re­port says Gale Creek is a rich ecosys­tem where the Heilt­suk take up to 25 food species, in­clud­ing a lu­cra­tive manila clam har­vest and red sea urchin, sea cu­cum­ber and salmon.

“We hold dear our whole ter­ri­tory, but this area is known as our bread bas­ket and peo­ple go there and har­vest mul­ti­tudes of dif­fer­ent species through­out the year, so the im­pact has been felt greatly through­out the com­mu­nity,” Slett said.

She said up to 50 peo­ple de­pend on the manila clam har­vest for much of their liveli­hoods and those peo­ple face a sec­ond sea­son of un­em­ploy­ment due to the clo­sure.

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau an­nounced a $1.5-bil­lion ocean pro­tec­tion plan last Novem­ber that in­cluded plans to im­prove spill re­sponse ca­pa­bil­i­ties along Canada’s coasts be­fore Ottawa ap­proved the Trans Moun­tain pipe­line ex­pan­sion, which is ex­pected to in­crease tanker traf­fic off B.C.

APRIL BENCZE, HEILT­SUK FIRST NA­TION, VIA CP

Oct. 23, 2016: The sunken tug Nathan E. Stewart, near Bella Bella.

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