It's now been over a month since an American tug boat sank off British Columbia's central coast, leaking over 100,000 litres of diesel into local herring and clam fisheries. On day 33 of a complicated cleanup, the Nathan E. Stewart is finally coming out of the water.
For the Heiltsuk First Nation, which claims the central coast as their traditional territory, the salvage doesn't mark the end, only a new chapter of a "nightmare" spill. Dragged out by storms and far-flung marine safety resources, Heiltsuk chief Marilyn Slett has challenged the government on its promises for a safer, tanker-free coastline.
"We waited for 22 hours for the right equipment to get here," she told VICE of the first day of the disaster. Industrial-sized booms were hauled in from Prince Rupert, several hundred kilometres north. "It wasn't what we'd all heard about over the past few years about a world-class marine spill response."
In the coming weeks, rough waters ruptured the booms surrounding the spill site, and efforts to recover fuel from onboard tanks were delayed. But amid all the setbacks and dangerous conditions, the Heiltsuk have forged a new oversight relationship with Canada's major spill response players.
The Heiltsuk First Nation has played a central role in communicating with the public and keeping eyes on the water. The spill's "unified command" includes Indigenous representation.
"We're now a part of this process that was not designed to include First Nations," said Slett. "There's no rule book or policy or anything that has guided us. It does certainly feel like it's uncharted [territory] for our communities."
Out of a poorly-handled disaster, academic observers see a new kind of spill response emerging in real time. "The Heiltsuk should be lauded for insisting, going forward, that old school spill response protocols are no longer acceptable," Chris Tollefson, executive director of the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation, told VICE. "First Nations need be involved on a government-to-government basis in making decisions about how spill response efforts are mounted and prioritized."
The hands-on approach hasn't been without conflict. Last week, the Heiltsuk called out the feds for holding back the results of the Department of Fisheries environmental sampling on the site. "The DFO and [environment ministry] are potentially putting human and environmental health at risk," Slett said in a statement.
One day before the federal government was set to announce a $1.5 billion "ocean protection" plan, a second tug sent out a distress call in the Heiltsuk waters. That 37-metre tug left its sinking haul of sand and gravel 40 nautical miles north of the spill.
The second scare further underlined Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise to ban oil tankers from the ecologically sensitive northern coast. "We were shocked in our community, to hear that this gravel and sand barge lost its load and sunk, and the tug just carried on to Alaska," said Slett. "For us, certainly prevention is the best measure we can take, so definitely, not having increased tanker traffic on the coast on the Inside Passage is part of that."
At the marine safety plan announcement last week, Trudeau echoed BC Premier Christy Clark and others, by calling the incident "unacceptable," but stopped short of announcing a tanker ban. Transportation Minister Marc Garneau has said one is coming by the end of the year.
Again, Slett challenged the government on its commitment to build a new relationship with First Nations. "We're bearing the brunt of this. After the salvage is completed today, it's the end of this phase," she said. "Tomorrow we look at the long term effects."
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