B.C. Locals ‘Infuriated’ By Nathan E. Stewart Response

Nathan E. Stewart
Nathan E. Stewart. Photo: Heiltsuk Nation

British Colombia locals are up in arms over the Canadian Coast Guard’s response to an oil spill following the grounding of an American tug and barge in B.C.’s Inside Passage near Bella Bella.

The tug Nathan E. Stewart, owned by Houston-based Kirby Corp., was pushing the petroleum barge DBL 55 when it ran aground at the entrance to Sea Forth Channel on Athlone Island on October 13. Although the barge was empty of cargo, marine diesel from the tug was released into the water and spread along nearby coastlines.

On Wednesday, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Dominic LeBlanc, released a statement saying that oil pumping from the tug had been completed, and the operation will now shift focus to salvaging of the tug and barge.

But Marilyn Slett, Chief Councillor of Bella Bella’s Heiltsuk First Nation, released a statement slamming the Minister’s words as ‘nothing further from the truth.’

“I’m infuriated by Minister Leblanc’s seemingly good news statement that suggests that now that transfer of diesel from the tanks of the tug Nathan E. Stewart is complete, we are basically turning our focus to pulling the dirty tug out the water and sending it away,” said Chief Slett.

The Nathan E. Stewart aground near Bella Bella, October 14, 2016. Credit: Heiltsuk Tribal Council
The Nathan E. Stewart aground near Bella Bella, October 14, 2016. Credit: Heiltsuk Tribal Council

According to Slett, Fisheries and Oceans did not have anyone on the ground for close to a week after the spill and the Heiltsuk have been taking the lead on environmental assessments to determine spill impacts on local and commercial fisheries.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no end in sight for the Heiltsuk people,” Slett said of Leblanc’s statement.

“The Heiltsuk have been told it could be weeks before the salvage operation even begins, and we’ve only started to scrape the surface to find out the extent of the damage done by the spill,” Slett said. “This demonstrates how out of touch and unresponsive Fisheries and Oceans is with what is happening on the ground in Bella Bella.”

The initial response and clean-up is being led by Western Canada Marine Response Corporation with crews from Prince Rupert and Vancouver. 

Marine Safety

The topic of marine safety in B.C. waters has been a hot-button issue for some time in Western Canada. In a statement issued earlier this week, Marc Garneau, Minister of Transport, said:

“Communities affected should know that the Government of Canada takes this incident very seriously, and will not hesitate to take appropriate action should there be any evidence of non-compliance.

“We are also reviewing and will approve any towing plans put forward by the owner to return the empty barge to the U.S. and will review the salvage plan for the tug with Canadian Coast Guard. Furthermore, the exemption that allowed the tug, Nathan E. Stewart, and barge to operate in the Seaforth Channel without a pilot from the Pacific Pilotage Authority onboard has been revoked. Such exemptions have been revoked for all vessels operated by the company.

“Improving marine safety is a key part of my mandate as Minister of Transport and I take this situation very seriously. The Nathan E. Stewart incident underlines the need for changes in the way we respond to marine pollution incidents, and that is why I am currently working on a coastal strategy to improve marine safety in a meaningful way.”

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has launched an investigation into the accident.