Tug Diesel Spill Proves to be a Nightmare for Heiltsuk Nation of British Columbia

The people of the Heiltsuk Nation have placed their hopes in the cleanup crews that are working to protect the clam beaches and salmon streams following a tug coming aground while pushing a massive fuel barge. The incident happened near Bella Bella in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia.

The barge in question, which can carry up to 52,000 barrels of oil, happened to be empty when it collided with the Edge Reef off the northern tip of Athlone Island on Thursday. Even though the barge was empty the tug was not. It was carrying a load that was estimated to be 60,000 gallons of diesel.

It’s not known just how much oil has spilled but the US company behind the tug and the barge said that they have dispatched the necessary resources to manage the worst case scenario.

Jim Guidry, the incident commander for Kirby Offshore Marine of Kirby Corp. issued a statement in which he said that the company issued a full response shortly after the accident happened. He stated that the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) had been activated and that they had deployed vessels and crew from the base they have in Prince Rupert.

The WCMRC is an oil-spill response organization that the oil industry itself pays to maintain. They have bases in Vancouver, Prince Rupert, and Duncan, which is on Vancouver Island.

One of the main priorities the response team will have will be to remove all the diesel that is still on the tug and safely salvage what is left of the vessel. Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett left an emergency meeting at the band office describing the situation as their worst nightmare.

She said that the tug boat sank at around 10 minutes to 10:00 o’clock in the morning. She also confirmed it was still attached to the barge, and admitted she was unsure what could be done about that as the two seemed to be permanently connected. Ms Slett also said that the Heiltsuk volunteers who rushed to the scene after daybreak said that they came across a large fuel slick.

The tug boat is 28-metres long and it is attached to the 90-metre fuel barge at the stern using a hinged connection. This setup is known as an articulated tug barge in the industry. ATBs are becoming more common on the West Coast to move bulks of oil and diesel. The tug boat in question; the Nathan E. Stewart, made routine runs between Vancouver and Alaska using the Inside Passage.

Bella Bella was visited just two weeks ago by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. They went there to dedicated the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia as part of the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy; an initiative setup to preserve the most globally significant forest areas.

Ms. Slett said that during the Royal tour everyone had talked about how they were all a community that worked tirelessly to preserve the integrity of the land, air, and sea around them. She said that everyone was very happy to get to show their dedication a few weeks ago but now everyone is devastated.

Ms. Slett said that the area the ATB ran aground in was an important harvesting area. She said that they used the area to harvest up to 25 species including clams and herring spawn. It was also an important migration area for salmon.

Just last year the Heiltsuk were able to harvest 50,000 pounds of manila clams. Given that the harvest was supposed to begin in three weeks it will no doubt have a devastating effect on the local economy.

Ms. Slett said that the reason the Coast Guard and the crew of the tug boat failed to contain the fuel spill was because they didn’t have the equipment to do it. She said that what happened after the spill was no world-class oil response. This was in reference to the British Columbia government promising to always be prepared and to always deliver the best spill regime possible. Instead no one was prepared and the results were devastating.

The Canadian Coast Guard issued a statement of their own. They said that they received a report of the accident at 1:13am. The CCG ships Barlett and John P. Tully responded to the report and were able to rescue all seven crew members from the tug, none of whom had injuries.

Jessie Housty of the Qqs Projects Society of Bella Bella said that it would take 22 hours for the equipment to get from Prince Rupert to the scene. By then the clam beds may have been fouled.

She said how devastating it is to know that there’s nothing you can do. She also spoke of how infuriating it is to know that they have spent years trying so hard to inform people about shipping safety issues and warn of the danger of the vessel traffic in the area. Environmental activist Ingmar Lee has spent a long time campaigning against ATB traffic along the inner coast. He said that he was afraid that the spill that occurred was something he was afraid would happen and that he had been warning people it was inevitable. Mr. Lee spoke after coming back from the accident site. He was there when the tug went down and reported that he saw a huge slick on the water and that there was a severe stench of fuel when the tug sank.

Source: Globe and Mail

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