Heiltsuk First Nation Calls for Immediate Tanker Ban After ‘Nathan E. Stewart’ Oil Spill

Nathan E. Stewart
An overflight of the sunken Nathan E. Stewart near Bella Bella, Oct. 30, 2016. Photo: Heiltsuk Nation/Tavish Campbell

British Columbia’s Heiltsuk Nation says it is hopeful that it can begin working with the Canadian government on responding to the oil spill from the sunken tugboat Nathan E. Stewart which ran aground near Bella Bella nearly three weeks ago.

On Sunday, leaders with the Heiltsuk First Nation welcomed Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to see first-hand the impacts the Nathan E. Stewart diesel spill has had on the environment. After meeting with the community, Heiltsuk leadership said they were hopeful that the two governments can start to work together.

“For us, immediately addressing this disaster is vital,” said Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett. “However, we are also focused on the long-term future of the Heiltsuk. The economic, cultural and environmental well-being of our community is our highest priority.”

The Nathan E. Stewart, an American owned tugboat owned by Houston-base Kirby Corp, ran aground Oct. 13 while pushing an unladen petroleum barge through B.C.’s Inside Passage on a voyage from Alaska to Vancouver. Although barge was empty at the time, about 110,000 liters of diesel fuel is estimated to have leaked from the tug into an environmentally sensitive marine harvesting area that is critical to the local economy.

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

So far the Heiltsuk Nation has been extremely critical of the Canadian government’s response to the incident, calling for better marine safety and response capabilities. 

“We hope that Ministers, after seeing the impacts of this spill for themselves, will work more closely with us than they have before to provide the support we need to monitor the impacts of this spill, aid in recovery and help us ensure that our aquatic life will still be there for future generations,” said Kelly Brown, Director of Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department (HIRMD).

During Sunday’s meeting, Heiltsuk leaders laid out a list of key priorities for the federal government to address, which included long-term monitoring and assessment of the area, more equipment and training for better oil spill preparedness, and an immediate tanker ban ensuring that all oil tankers carrying crude from the Alberta Tar sands are banned from Heiltsuk waters.

Chief Slett later echoed Brown’s statements. “We are hopeful that after today, the tables will turn.”

Boom surrounds the sunken tug Nathan E. Stewart near Bella Bella. Photo: WCMRC
Boom surrounds the sunken tug Nathan E. Stewart near Bella Bella. Photo: WCMRC

In addition to local first responders, initial response and clean-up has been primarily led by Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, with crews and equipment from Prince Rupert and Vancouver. Booming of the spill however has been mostly ineffective due to heavy weather in the area.

Last week Fisheries Minister LeBlanc said that oil pumping from the tug had been completed and the operation will shift to salvaging the tug, although it is unclear when exactly those operations would commence.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has closed the area to all fishing on October 14 and has not provided a date for when it will reopen.

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