Stop Tankers in the Great Bear Sea

diesel slick emanating from sunken tug
Heartbreaking news: Tanker barge disaster in the Great Bear Sea

Shortly after 1am on October 13th, 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart, a 10,000 ton tanker barge 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. The tug sank by 10am; it contained approximately 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel and nearly 2,500 gallons of various heavy oils, and has been leaking since the grounding. The fuel barge was unladen and on its southwards journey after delivering in Ketchikan, Alaska.

The Heiltsuk community was notified at 4:30am and had vessels on the scene by daybreak working to install containment booms. The Coast Guard deployed several vessels, however the immediate spill containment response was inadequate due to lack of equipment, and the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation did not arrive on scene until 22 hours after the incident. Containment and recovery efforts by industry and government, hindered by wind and strong currents, have been painfully slow and grossly ineffective, while the Heiltsuk community continues to shoulder the burden of clean-up, local coordination, and monitoring response activities. 

Now more than a week later, the sunken tugboat continues to pollute an area of enormous ecological, cultural, and economic significance to the Heiltsuk Nation. Humpback whales, orcas, wild salmon, sea otters and countless other species may be impacted by this disaster. Hindered by slow response time, as well as wind and strong currents, containment and recovery efforts by industry and government have been painfully slow and grossly ineffective. Efforts are underway to remove the remaining fuel from the sunken vessel, but the process has been much slower than anticipated to do poor weather conditions and other variables. Booms are continually breaking and being breached; spill containment has failed.

The spill has blanketed an area rich in manila clams, kelp beds, and fishing grounds where local Heiltsuk people harvest 25 different marine species. Gale Pass is a narrow channel between two islands with many calm lagoons, ten thousand year old village sites, ancient clam gardens and fish traps, as well as habitat for sandhill cranes, geese, ducks and coastal wolves. The slick has travelled through Gale Pass, as well as to the east and west in Seaforth Channel. The vast majority of manila clam harvesting areas in Heiltsuk territory are now under emergency chemical contaminant closure for all shellfish harvesting

The Nathan E. Stewart, and other vessels like it, carry 10,000 deadweight tons of petroleum products - one third of the volume spilled by the Exxon Valdes in Prince William Sound - from Washington State to Alaska, passing through the inside waters of the Great Bear Rainforest every 10 days. Tanker barge traffic amounts to at least half a million tons of petroleum products every year. These tug-barges operated by ‘special waiver’ issued by the Pacific Pilotage Authority, which oversees all shipping on Canada's Pacific coast. Canada derives no benefit from their passage.  All other petroleum product tankers that traverse the B.C. coast must travel at least 20 miles offshore in order to increase the time available for a rescue response in the event of disaster. Due to this incident, the Pacific Pilotage Authority now requires these tanker barges to travel via Hecate Strait, the shallow and often stormy waters between Haida Gwaii and the Great Bear archipelago, but in foul weather they may still use sections of the Inside Passage.

“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.”  - Marilyn Slett, Chief Councillor for the Heiltsuk Nation

At least six tugs, all involved in towing barges, sank off the B.C. coast last year, and this year already there have been at least two serious groundings associated with tug/barge units. The Green Party of Canada recently passed a resolution that “American tug-barge petroleum traffic be barred from traveling up and down the 'protected' waters of the British Columbia Inside Passage, and be required to travel, by suitable, seaworthy double-hulled vessels safely 20 miles off the BC coast.”

How you can help:

1. Heiltsuk Tribal Council has launched an investigation into the diesel spill. Please consider supporting this critical work. Your contributions will help cover costs the Kirby Corporation does not. Please Donate.

2. Stand with the Heiltsuk Nation in demanding an immediate ban on articulated tanker barge traffic through the inside passage and Hecate Strait, as well as a permanent ban on oil tanker traffic in the Great Bear Sea. Click here to edit, sign, and send a letter to government representatives.

3. Stay tuned, and share information with your networks to gather support for the above efforts and next steps.

           Heiltsuk Tribal Council Facebook page

           10,000 Ton Tanker Facebook group

We are distraught in the face of this disaster. Pacific Wild staff are assisting the Heiltsuk Tribal Council with media communications and with clean up efforts. We cannot emphasize enough our gratitude and admiration of the Heiltsuk community for their tireless hard work on all fronts during this crisis, and for their efforts to ensure that it can’t happen again. Your support means so much!

More links:

Heiltsuk Tribal Council press release: Tanker barge runs aground in Great Bear Rainforest

Coastal First Nations press release: Coastal First Nations renews call for oil tanker ban on BC coast in aftermath of Bella Bella spill

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs press release: UBCIC Stands with Heiltsuk: Alarm Over Fuel Spill Impacts to Critical Clam Beds 

For background information about the Nathan E. Stewart’s transits through the Great Bear Rainforest, please see this 3 minute video.

About Enbridge Northern Gateway and the North Coast Tanker Ban

Through enormous effort led by B.C.'s First Nations and supported by citizens and organizations across the province, approval of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker project has been overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal. Fighting this project took nearly a decade of hard work: thousands of people focused their lives on preventing Northern Gateway from happening, and small coastal communities were put under tremendous pressure to show that this coast should not be put at risk by crude oil tanker traffic. Until we have an official ban on tanker traffic, Enbridge and other powerful corporations will continue to seek a way to ship hydrocarbons through the Great Bear Sea. Pacific Wild remains determined to advocate for a quiet, tanker-free ocean, keeping our coast safe from oil spills and protecting the incredible biodiversity of the Great Bear Sea. We are thrilled that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called for a moritorium on crude oil tanker traffic through the Great Bear Rainforest, but until it is in place, and comprehensively covers all major shipping of petroleum products, this issue remains unresolved.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau recently announced that the federal government will be releasing a new “Pacific strategy” this fall – and it will include the long-promised crude oil tanker moratorium for the north coast. Whether or not this move will actually ensure lasting protection for the Great Bear Sea will depend on how it is implemented. For example, we need to make sure that the ban is legislated by an Act of Parliament and does not contain a sunset clause or expiry date. Read West Coast Environmental Law’s blog for more information about what the moratorium should look like.


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