Heiltsuk Nation turns to courts a year after diesel spill and botched response

Bella Bella – This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat spill near Bella Bella, BC, on territory of the Heiltsuk First Nation.

Charging that recovery efforts have been undermined by government and Kirby Corporation’s refusal to take responsibility for the spill and to cooperate in its aftermath, the Nation has turned to the courts.

“The oil spill continues to be a catastrophic injury to our food sources, culture and economy,” says Marilyn Slett, Chief Councillorof the Heiltsuk Tribal Council. “Thanks to Kirby Corporation and the governments of British Columbia and Canada, our community’s road to recovery keeps getting longer and longer.”

Heiltsuk Tribal Council say that numerous requests for information to the polluter and government agencies, including Transport Canada, the Transportation Safety Board, and Canadian Coast Guard, have been denied or ignored, and that Kirby Corporation and government have kept information secret about what occurred on October 13, 2016, when the Nathan E. Stewart sank and spilled oil into Gale Pass.

This secrecy and lack of collaboration has continued throughout the post-spill recovery.

“Recently, we learned the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Kirby have been secretly negotiating an agreement on the post-spill environmental impact assessment since early this year,” says Chief Councillor Slett. “Since this nightmare began, the polluter and provincial and federal governments have ignored our questions and environmental concerns, our collaboration attempts, and our rights as indigenous people. We have no choice but to turn to the courts.”

The Heiltsuk Nation is currently preparing for legal action, with hopes of recovering damages suffered by its members, and to examine the actual state of Canada’s “world class” oil spill response system.

The case will seek compensation for loss of commercial harvesting of marine resources and infringement of Aboriginal rights relating to food, social and ceremonial importance of marine resources — factors that the current oil spill liability framework does not account for.

“When I’m not harvesting Gale Pass to feed my family, I am working there as a commercial fisherman, earning an income to support them – and I’m one of many,” says harvester and volunteer oil spill responder, Robert Johnson. “Despite our reliance on Gale Pass, the governments of British Columbia and Canada and Kirby the polluter have little interest in understanding the impacts of this oil spill on the health of my community, this environment, or our economy.”

The current legal framework excuses the polluter (Kirby Corporation) and Canadian governments from full responsibility for oil spill impacts on Aboriginal rights otherwise protected by the Constitution, which means they are not required by law to do comprehensive impact assessments of the oil spill.

To date, they have rejected multiple Heiltsuk requests to participate in a study of the current and long-term impacts of the oil spill on the health of the ecosystem and marine resources and the social and economic consequences associated with the loss of harvest and use of the impacted area. Instead, Kirby Corporation and the BC Ministry of Environment are proposing a limited environmental assessment covering a minority of the area and species affected.

Heiltsuk Nation will be asking the courts to assess whether this existing regime of liability for oil spills can really be considered constitutional.

“We’re learning the hard way that Indigenous people and coastal communities can’t count on polluters, Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, or the governments of BC and Canada in a crisis situation,” says Kelly Brown, Director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. “For our sake, and the sake of our neighbours, we are consulting with a range of experts to assess damages, recovery times and ultimately determine how we can prevent a similar disaster in the future.”

The Heiltsuk Tribal Council had already undertaken an exhaustive investigation into the spill last April, and expects further results of impact assessments, legal analyses, and evaluations to materialize in the coming weeks and months.

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