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‘Nightmare’ Spill Cleanup on Hold as Storm Moves in on Sunken Tug

A boat without a pilot, dangerous weather, and failed efforts to contain tens of thousands of litres of diesel will likely ruin one First Nation's clam harvest this year.

by Sarah Berman
Oct 19 2016, 6:00pm

Boat down. Photo by Ian McAllister / Pacific Wild

For a second time, the Heiltsuk First Nation must watch and wait as a sunken tug boat bobs and leaks diesel into their territorial waters.

As a storm rolled in to British Columbia's central coast last night, and Environment Canada issued a gale warning this morning, cleanup crews paused efforts to recover more than 200,000 litres of fuel from the Nathan E. Stewart, which ran aground off the northern tip of Athlone Island nearly a week ago.

So far, about 88,000 litres of fuel have been removed from the wayward tug, according to an incident report released yesterday afternoon. Crews began extracting the fuel with a process called "hot tapping" overnight Monday, in attempt to finish the 40-hour operation before bad conditions forced divers and vessels out of the water. Heiltsuk observers say the storm arrived before the job was done, which means cleanup boats are standing down until it's safe to resume operations.

For the Heiltsuk, this latest wait comes with some assurance that the spill is contained. Two large circles of boom now surround the cleanup site, stopping any significant amount of diesel from being released into the Seaforth Channel near Bella Bella, BC. But according to Heiltsuk community leader Jess Housty, that wasn't the case on Thursday, October 13, when the tug pushing an empty fuel barge from Alaska hit Edge Reef and started to go down. That 20-hour wait, described by Chief Marilyn Slett as "our worst nightmare," felt different.

"The biggest issue, first and foremost, was the nearest significant response unit was in Prince Rupert," Housty told VICE. Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, which is overseeing the cleanup along with American owner Kirby Offshore Marine and the Heiltsuk, has bases in Vancouver, Prince Rupert and Duncan, BC—all hundreds of kilometres away from the accident.

Housty says locals and Coast Guard were the first to attend the scene, but it took another 20 hours to bring in heavier boom equipment from Prince Rupert. "Had we had a significant spill response unit on the central coast, the likelihood is we would not have this magnitude of fuel on the water," she said.

The amount of fuel released in those hours is still unknown, but estimated in the tens of thousands of litres. Flyover observers say currents have pulled the slick into seafood harvesting areas deemed essential to the local economy. Industrial fishing has been closed. The Heiltsuk's clam harvest, set to take place in a few weeks, could be ruined by the spill.

The incident has called into question federal and provincial marine safety policy, and bolstered environmentalists' calls for more restrictions on oil transport along the northern and central coast. Under current rules, the American boat was allowed to sail through BC's precarious Inside Passage without a pilot on board.

Canada's transport minister released a statement this week saying it's revoked the exemption that allowed the tug and fuel barge to operate without a pilot with local knowledge of the area. "The Nathan E. Stewart incident underlines the need for changes in the way we respond to marine pollution incidents," reads part of the statement.

Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to put a moratorium on tanker traffic for a huge stretch of coast north of Vancouver Island. Gavin Smith of West Coast Environmental Law told VICE that ban can't come soon enough. "I think the Nathan E. Stewart incident shines a light on the issue of vulnerability of ecologically important regions to petroleum products," he said. "It shows there needs to be an indefinite ban, these areas are just too ecologically significant to expose."

Once the fuel is removed, salvage crews will need to bring in a crane to lift the tug out of the ocean—not an easy job, and one that worries Housty.

"To be up there myself and see that sick sheen over the water, and how huge it is, it's grief for me—not even anger," said Housty. "For me it's like being told a loved one has died. You can process it on some level, but when you see it, it's just visceral understanding of the reality, it's a totally different thing."

Though the extent of permanent damage is still unknown, it won't be the first time industry has left behind scars. A new episode of ABANDONED on VICELAND takes place on the northern BC coast, where the crew was welcomed by the Heiltsuk on their native land to show some of the commercial waste left behind.

Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.

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