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Bella Bella Fights Massive Diesel Spill After Tugboat Runs Aground

A month after a tugboat sunk and dumped 52,850 gallons of diesel into waters near the Great Bear Rainforest, the Heiltsuk Nation still cleaning.
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Bella Bella, British Columbia, is in the heart of the Heilsuk Nation, where harvesting clams, crab and kelp, and fishing for salmon, herring and other marine creatures is the lifeblood for all who live there.

Now those waters have been poisoned by 52,850 gallons of diesel that they are still struggling to clean up a month after it happened. On October 13 the Nathan E. Stewart tug was traveling under a waiver that allowed it to transit Canadian waters without a Canadian marine pilot when it went ashore and sank in Seaforth Channel. More than 52,850 gallons (200,000 liters) of diesel fuel spilled into the coastal waters near the isolated community of Bella Bella when the tugboat ran aground and ripped open two fuel tanks onboard.

Thousands of years of tradition and rich culture now hang in the balance as spill response crews struggle to contain the massive diesel spill while efforts have been plagued by harsh weather and high swells, making containment nearly impossible.

“At the moment unfortunately things are stalled,” said Heiltsuk Council Member Jess Housty earlier this month. “In order to get the tug dragged out to deeper waters and lifted onto a salvage barge, we need a good weather window, and we haven’t got one, and likely haven’t got one coming for another few days.”

The spill could not have happened at a worse time, as the community was in the middle of harvesting food for the winter months. It also came as the federal government develops an oil tanker ban for the Central Coast of British Columbia to protect the largest temperate rainforest in the world, the Great Bear Rainforest.

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Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc and Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould visited Bella Bella and flew over the spill site. LeBlanc reassured members of the community that the Canadian government was doing everything it could to deal with the situation and acknowledged the Liberals would follow through with their commitment to formalize a tanker ban.

“I think in the coming weeks we’ll see the government of Canada step up in a way that we have been working on for a year. So this tragic circumstance reminds us of how important it is to do it properly,” LeBlanc said during his visit. “The Prime Minister also gave a clear instruction to Mr. Garneau to ensure a moratorium is in place on the Northwest Coast of British Columbia. It was a clear campaign commitment we made, so I have no concern that we will not honor those commitments.”

Minister of Transport Marc Garneau visited Bella Bella on Sunday November 6. On November 7, Trudeau debuted new federal investments designed to shore up marine safety.

“This is an important step, but our Nations need to be involved at the nation-to-nation level in the design and delivery of marine safety and shipping management in our Territories,” said Coastal First Nations President and Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett. “We want a joint management plan in which our Nations are fully resourced and making decisions about vessel traffic in our waters.”

One issue Garneau reviewed was the need for a more centralized location on the B.C. coast for emergency response teams. According to Housty, the first 72 hours after the incident were the most difficult because the closest spill response teams are located in Vancouver and Prince Rupert, hundreds of miles away.

However, Housty said, this is an issue the Heiltsuk have brought up more than once, along with advocating for a tanker ban that could have prevented this disaster.

Photo: Courtesy Heiltsuk Nation

The oil left a sheen on the waters of Gale Creek.

“The Heilsuk have been on record for years that a tanker ban needs to be implemented, there needs to be increased spill response capacity on the central coast, and that we need to take a serious look at how marine shipping safety is regulated,” said Housty. “We’re looking for action from the federal government on this. We can’t just be talking about buzzwords like reconciliation and nation-to-nation relationships when there are very clearly areas where action is needed more than talk, and these issues demonstrate where we need action.”

The weather has been so bad that for several days all response vessels had to stand down and wait to continue the cleanup. During this time, Housty said, community members are being trained for shoreline cleanup, which will happen once the tug has been removed from the reef.

But that could take some time, as ecological sampling and wildlife monitoring is conducted in the meantime to determine the extent of the damage, Housty said.

“Yet the degradation to the environment is only part of the impact this disaster is having on the Heiltsuk Nation,” Housty said. “This incident has been heartbreaking for the community. We don’t think of the land and waters as being some lifeless, inert thing that’s just there for our convenience. It’s something that’s living and deeply connected to us.”

Beyond being solely an environmental or ecological issue, he explained, the spill carries severe cultural, social, emotional and spiritual ramifications.

“People are talking about it as though it’s just an environmental or ecological issue, and it is, but it’s also a cultural issue, it’s a social issue, it’s an emotional and spiritual issue,” Housty said. “I grew up out there. It’s the landscape of my childhood, and to see it damaged in this way… you can’t track the impacts just in terms of acceptable ecological detection limits. It’s tragic and I think it’s going to take years and probably generations before we fully understand how this incident is imprinted on the psyche of our community.”