VICTORIA – A rich marine harvest ground for a First Nation near British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest remains closed to shell fishing one year after a tug ran aground, spilling more than 100,000 litres of fuel into Seaforth Channel.
Chief Marilyn Slett of the Heiltsuk First Nation in the small community of Bella Bella said Thursday that the sinking on Oct. 13 last year of the 30-metre tug Nathan E. Stewart has had devastating social, cultural and economic impacts on her people.
She said her First Nation wants answers about the long-term effects of the fuel spill but are getting little assistance from the B.C. and federal governments and the tug boat company, Texas-based Kirby Corp.
Slett said when the tug was pulled from the water about a month after it sank and the fuel spill was contained, government environment officials and company salvage crews left.
“Largely, since everything has sort of packed up … dealing with the post spill and long-term effects, (it) has been largely radio silence,” she said. “We are on our own.”
Slett said both levels of government don’t appear interested in conducting reviews of long-term health, social and economic impacts of the spill. The Heiltsuk are preparing to do their own study, which she said could cost up to $500,000.
“We rely on healthy resources and we rely on being able to harvest from the sea for our way of life, for our economy,” Slett said.
B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman was not available for an interview, but in a statement he said improvements in spill responses and recovery are needed and First Nations must be included in the process.
The government is seeking Heiltsuk input into plans to recover from the spill, he added.
“While funding for ship-source spills is a federal responsibility we are open to working with the (Heiltsuk) and the federal government on additional federal and provincial regulatory provisions to address all aspects of response and recovery,” Heyman said.
The federal government and Kirby Corp. were not available for comment on Thursday.
A final situation report signed last November by the Heiltsuk, the federal and B.C. governments found the Nathan E. Stewart was loaded with 237,262 litres of diesel and towing an empty fuel barge when it ran aground.
More than 107,000 litres of diesel and 2,240 litres of lubricants, including gear, hydraulic and lube oils, were released into the ocean, creating an oily purple and yellow sheen on the water and beaches around the spill site.
Slett said the tug ran aground about 12 kilometres west of Bella Bella near the mouth of Gale Creek, a prime seafood harvesting and fishing area for the Heiltsuk. The area has been closed since Oct. 14, 2016.
A separate report released by the Heiltsuk last April criticized Canada’s emergency response measures in the hours after the grounding of the tug. The federal government did not respond to the criticism at the time but said it would meet with the Heiltsuk to review what they’ve collectively learned from the incident.
The report says Gale Creek is a rich ecosystem where the Heiltsuk take up to 25 food species, including a lucrative manila clam harvest and red sea urchin, sea cucumber and salmon.
“We hold dear our whole territory, but this area is known as our bread basket and people go there and harvest multitudes of different species throughout the year, so the impact has been felt greatly throughout the community,” said Slett.
She said up to 50 people depend on the manila clam harvest for much of their livelihoods and those people face a second season of unemployment due to the closure.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $1.5 billion ocean protection plan last November that included plans to improve spill response capabilities along Canada’s coasts before Ottawa approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which is expected to increase tanker traffic off B.C.