Bella Bella – A 10,000 ton tanker barge called the Nathan E. Stewart, owned by the Texas-based Kirby Corporation, ran aground in Seaforth Channel near Gale Pass on Athlone Island, near the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella.
At approximately 9:50am on October 13, the tug sank with fuel continuing to flow into the water. The tug is believed to have had 60,000 gallons of fuel on board, and three of its tanks were compromised.
Heiltsuk vessels have been on scene since first light to monitor the situation, assess environmental impacts, and assist with spill response. Coast Guard vessels Cape St. James, Bartlett, and Tully are also at the spill site and safely secured the crew from the Nathan E. Stewart before the vessel went under.
The spill threatens to devastate an area in which 25 important species are harvested, as recorded in an ongoing Heiltsuk Traditional Use Study. This includes manila clam beds that provide an income to the community of approximately $150,000 per year.
“Though we are thankful that the barge was empty, we are gravely concerned about the potential ramifications of the fuel spill from the tug,” said Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett. “Our Gitga’at neighbours to the north are still unable to harvest clams and other seafoods ten years after the sinking of the Queen of the North. This spill area is in one of our primary breadbaskets, and we know that diesel is extremely difficult to recover.”
With the changing winds and tide, there is concern that the spilled fuel will be pushed towards other important harvesting areas for herring roe, seaweed and clams.
“It’s really bad out here. A lot of fuel is on the beach already, and fuel is in the water,” said Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department director Kelly Brown from the spill site. “The initial spill response has been totally inadequate. The first responding vessels were not equipped to deal with a spill, and had to return to town to gather more gear. The Heiltsuk are providing our own equipment because what responders have been able to provide so far is insufficient.”
As fuel continues to leak into the water and containment efforts are still underway, Kirby Offshore Marine has announced that responders are en route from Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, but they will be unable to reach the scene until almost 24 hours after the incident took place.
“This is a stirring reminder that the north coast oil tanker moratorium cannot be legislated fast enough. We must take note, however, that tanker barges like this might not even be included in the ban. The ban needs to be complete, and spill response must be improved,” said Slett.
Feature image: Jordan Wilson, Pacific Wild