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Oil booms around the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat and accompanying barge, pictured here, were said to have failed to limit the spread of diesel, as did attempts to remove diesel from the water using absorbent pads. (Photo: Western Canada Marine Response Corporation_

Hapless Response to BC Diesel Spill Has First Nations and Enviros Worried

Spill and subsequent response are called 'a black stain at the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest'

Deirdre Fulton

In the wake of last week's diesel spill in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest, First Nations people and environmentalists expressed concerns over the "totally inadequate" response by industry and government.

Those concerns took on even greater gravity on Wednesday, after news that a boat working to retrieve the diesel from the accident had itself gone down.

"If this is world-class spill response, it's not good enough," said Kai Nagata, communications director at Dogwood Initiative, referring to the B.C. government's promise earlier this year to implement such a response regime.

"We are in no way prepared to respond to a full-scale oil spill on the West Coast, and likely never will be."
—Kai Nagata, Dogwood Initiative

Even before the marine salvage boat began taking on water Wednesday, community members described the response to the original incident—the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat running aground—as "poorly coordinated" and "nightmarish."

The tug and accompanying 10,000-ton tanker barge ran aground early on the morning of October 14, in the Seaforth Channel near Bella Bella, British Columbia. The Vancouver Sun reported: "The articulated tug-barge combo was on its way back to Vancouver from Alaska at the time and the 287-foot fuel barge was empty, but the tug quickly began leaking diesel into the water."

The vessel was carrying approximately 200,000 liters of fuel, of which just 88,000 liters has been retrieved. According to the local Times Colonist this week, "[a]bout 25,000 liters of fuel was pumped out of the tug shortly after it ran aground...but the pumps failed, cutting short that salvage effort."

Members of the Heiltsuk First Nation, who live in the surrounding area, expressed immediate worries about the "at least 25 recorded species that the Heiltsuk harvest at the spill site," including manila clam beds that provide income of up to $150,000 per year for the community. In turn, they immediately sent out their own spill response equipment to help the containing efforts, "as the responders did not have sufficient supplies."

"There was not enough responding equipment or safety equipment," said Jess Housty, elected council member of the Heiltsuk First Nation. "Not enough people, not enough boats."

Indeed, the Heiltsuk themselves were on the scene for close to 24 hours before the first official spill response vessels arrived, according to a report from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

"Now the Heiltsuk wait to determine the true environmental impact," said Misty MacDuffee, wild salmon program coordinator for the foundation. "We are all victims of government oil spill response rhetoric, but the brunt of the consequences fall on local communities and wildlife."

Indigenous people and environmentalists pointed to the disaster as further justification for a ban on tanker traffic on B.C.'s northern coast.

And as correspondent Mark Hume noted in the Globe and Mail: "The spill response that followed shows B.C. is a long way from being able to deal with the increase in tanker traffic that would come if either of Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, or Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion go ahead."

Calling the spill "a black stain at the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest," Greenpeace Canada's Eduardo Sousa last week reiterated (pdf) his group's call for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to "keep his promise and immediately enact a permanent ban on the west coast for oil tankers and other vessels carrying huge supplies of oil."

However, when asked about it on Wednesday morning, Trudeau dodged, merely saying his government is committed to marine safety.

That's not good enough, said Dogwood's Nagata. Referring to Wednesday's sinking of the clean-up boat, Nagata said that incident "reinforces a simple truth. We are in no way prepared to respond to a full-scale oil spill on the West Coast, and likely never will be. The best way to prevent a catastrophe is to quickly bring in a ban on oil tankers."

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