Disaster Deja-Vu in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest

By Lloyd Dolha

The Gitga’at of Hartley Bay have found a friend in MLA Gary Coons. The North Coast MLA marked the anniversary of the March 22, 2006 sinking of B.C. Ferries vessel Queen of the North with a call for a full and throrough public inquiry into the incident. “Those in Hartley Bay are still dealing with the upwelling diesel and the impacts on their harvesting grounds,” said Coons in a statement to the provincial legislature. “Eight times in the final report of the Transportation Safety Board it said that the B.C. Ferry Service’s actions placed the vessel, its passengers, and crew at risk.”

The Gitga’at will continue to be at risk as long as the wreck continues to deteriorate and release dangerous toxins into the waters off Gil Island in Wright Sound about 135 kilometres south of Prince Rupert. Hydrocarbons, asbestos, lead, mercury, and other toxins pollute surrounding waters and threaten one of the largest remaining areas of unspoiloed temperate rainforests in the world—rainforest that is home to the iconic Kermode or Spirit Bear (Ursus americanus kermodei), officially added to British Columbia’s list of provincial symbols in 2006.

Bound for Port Hardy, reports indicated the Queen of the North was approximately one kilometre off course at the time of the collision. The fifth largest in the B.C. Ferries fleet, the ship had a gross tonnage of 8,806 and approximately 220,000 letres of diesel fuel on board, plus 23,000 litres of lubricating oil. She was also carrying 16 vehicles, and her sinking created an oil slick that spread throughout the sound. “The president of B.C. Ferries Services [David Hanh] promised to restore the area to its pristine condition, and the only way they can do that is to come and get the ship off the bottom,” said Karen Romans of the Gitga’at First Nation.

The Gitga’at say the B.C. Ferries has broken its promise to do “whatever it takes” to protect the marine environment on which they depend. The First Nation is still tied up in litigation efforts to remove the sunken vessel and prevent further long-term harmful consequences. The Gitga’at wants B.C. Ferries to use its insurance to get the deteriorating wreck out of their traditional territorial waters.

Fishermen from the Gitga’at of Hartley Bay were the first to respond to the distress call when the Queen of the North sank just past midnight. Rescuers set out in a fleet of small fishing and recreational vessels to pick up many of the 99 survivors in the dead of night. Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette of 100 Mile House perished with the ship. The excessive cost of litigation in provincial courts forced Foisy’s two teenage daughters to accept an out-of-court settlement. According to lawyer Peter Richie, although B.C. Ferries admitted liability in the tragedy and the federal Transportation Safety Board conducted investigations, both had “considerable” shortfalls. He said B.C. Ferries had a “vested interest” in what they inquired into and the transportation board has a methodology that could not find fault or cross examine witnesses. Because of the out of court settements, case details and testimony remain secret. The family of Shirley Rosette also settled out of court, and a class action suit for the 99 survivors is still pending.

Recalling the 20th anniversary of the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill that devastated Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, the Gitga’at are also deeply concerned with Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline project. The $4 billion dollar Enbridge pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels of tar sands petroleum from Edmonton across northern B.C. to Kitimat for export to eastern markets and the United States. A second pipeline would move condensate (a thinning compound) from Kitimat back to Edmonton. The line is expected to operate for some 200 years. The pipeline project also includes the construction of a supertanker terminal in Kitimat. If approved, at least 150 double-hulled tankers would pass through the coastal Inside Passage each year.

A number of environmental groups and First Nations have adamantly expressed their opposition to the Enbridge project. The Council of the Haida Nation and the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council are ardent opponents. “The Haida Nation will certainly not accept tanker traffic where we would bear the burden of risk and oil spills in our waters. Our livelihoods would be jeopardized,” said Robert Davis in a December 2008 news release. “Many of our neighbour nations are equally concerned about the impacts on their lands and water.”

The Carrier Sekani have launched a suit in Federal Court challenging the decision of the federal government to appoint a Joint Review Panel with the National Energy Board in the environmental assessment of the Enbridge pipeline project. In late November, the First Nations Summit had called on the federal government to establish an independent First Nations review process for the pipeline project.

The Enbridge project has the tentative support of 25 of the 42 First Nations groups along the 1,170 kilometre pipeline route. But the Gitga’at already know the pain of environmental damage from the Queen of the North sinking, and an Enbridge oil spill would result in irreparable harm to their culture and the devastation of rich and ecologically diverse territory. “There is nothing but risk in this whole process for the Gitga’at people,” said band councillor Cameron Hill. “There are no benefits. I have not heard one.”