Diesel Spill Near Bella Bella: An Environmental Disaster

by Frank Larue

In October, a tugboat pushing an empty barge coming from Alaska to Vancouver mistook the speed regulations and ran aground at Edge Reef in Seaforth, close to Bella Bella. Neither the tugboat nor the barge were transporting oil, but the ‘Nathan E. Stewart’ had started the journey with 50,000 gallons of diesel to make the trip and was now leaking.

The tugboat Nathan E. Stewart lies submerged at the mouth of the Seaforth Channel near Bella Coola, B.C., shown in a handout photo from the Canadian Coast Guard

The tugboat Nathan E. Stewart lies submerged at the mouth of the Seaforth Channel near Bella Coola, B.C., shown in a handout photo from the Canadian Coast Guard

The response to the oil spill has gathered more attention than the spill itself. “It is one of the most precious, beautiful, secluded little waterways on this whole west coast,” Activist Ingmar Lee told the media. “That’s very catastrophic for the Heiltsuk Nation,” Heitlsuk Chief Marylyn Slett said in a news release. “This spill area is in one of our primary breadbaskets, and we know that diesel is extremely
difficult to recover. Twenty-five species harvested by the Heiltsuk live near the spill site.

Unfortunately, the responders have not had much success so far, in fact the Heiltsuk First Nation have been forced to help out. “The Heiltsuk are providing our own equipment,” Kelly Brown, director of the Band’s Resource Management told the media. “Because the equipment the responders have been able to provide so far is insufficient.” Regarding the seriousness of the spill for the future, “Our GItka’at neighbours to the north are still unable to harvest clams and other seafood ten years after the sinking of the Queen of the North,” Chief Marlyn Slett told the media.

Heiltsuk leader William Gadstone expressed the Band’s anger, “A violation. We were never consulted
on the use of barges to transport dangerous goods in our territory and this incident is an unjustified infringement on our hard-won right to a commercial herring fishery. Provincial governments have failed miserably in protecting the natural resources of British Columbia and respecting the rights of aboriginal peoples to their waters and territories. There is no world-class response system for oil spills in B.C., as has been promised.”

The true fear that has become obvious to not only the Heiltsuk First Nations, but to all environmental organizations observing the spill in Bella Bella, is that neither government federally or provincially or the oil companies involved in the transportation of oil are truly prepared to deal with a serious spill. If the response can’t handle the spill from a tugboat, what would happen if it were a tanker?

The tugboat had less than 50,000 gallons of diesel onboard. A tanker is a hundred times the size of tugboat, capable of carrying 750,000 barrels of crude oil (barrels contain 159 litres each). If the response system set up by government and private industry can’t handle a tugboat without assistance, how would the same government and private sector companies deal with a real oil spill? This scenario only need happen once to have a devastating effect on nature and native people.

Alison Sayers, the chair of the Central Coast Regional District summed up the spill, “Absolutely devastating news and a true tragedy for Heiltsuk Nation and the sensitive and unique natural environment. There should be no tanker traffic on the West Coast until we have a tested, tried and true world-class response to oil spills.”

Where is Premier Christy Clark? Often the first one to criticize the feds, she is the last one to do anything positive for First Nations. “British Columbia has been cheated by the federal government for decades now,” she told the media, but her pro-action seems to be limited to complaints. Unfortunately, a lot of tough talk and no substance sums up her tenure in power, and still continues with her complicated relationship with First Nations.