Heiltsuk First Nation calls tugboat sinking near Bella Bella ‘environmental disaster’ as cleanup efforts continue

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The Heiltsuk First Nation caught in the middle of a diesel spill near Bella Bella is sounding the alarm and calling the situation an “environment disaster.”

The tugboat Nathan E. Stewart with more than 59,000 gallons of diesel fuel onboard sank at the entrance to Seaforth Channel, west of Bella Bella after running aground Thursday morning, causing booms and oil skimmers to be deployed. The barge that the tug was carrying was empty of cargo and has since been moved to a safe anchorage.

nathan e. stewart tug boat with booms Bella Bella

Concern over clam beds and wildlife

Heiltsuk First Nation Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett says the spill is devastating the clam beds that the community relies on for income.

Slett says only 6,554 gallons of the 59,924 gallons of diesel onboard the tug were able to be pumped from the vessel before it sank.

She says since then, the sunken vessel has been leaking diesel into an area of enormous ecological, economic and cultural significance to the Heiltsuk Nation.

Slett says spilled diesel has already fully blanketed the most important clam beds in Heiltsuk Territory.

WATCH: First Nation worries about sunken tug near Bella Bella 


Kirby Offshore Marine that owns the tug says Fisheries and Oceans Canada have put in place a shellfish fisheries closure for Seaforth Channel and Gale Passage as of Friday. Slett says the closure area covers the vast majority of Heiltsuk manila clam harvesting grounds, leaving only two sites unaffected.

“It’s something that will affect our community for years to come,” Slett told Global News.

Kirby Offshore Marine says their wildlife crews reported no oiled wildlife observed on Monday.

They will be following up with Heiltsuk Guardian Watchmen who have been monitoring the area for oiled wildlife and have observed some wildlife in the spill area over the last few days.

A wildlife hotline has been activated at 877-323-3985, but members of the public and responders are urged not to attempt to handle any oiled wildlife.

Clean-up operations

The tug is currently partially submerged in about nine metres of water.

Efforts to remove the fuel from the tug through a process called “hot tapping” began on Monday and a skimming vessel has also arrived in the area.

Tapping and pumping operations continued throughout the night. The company says crews reported 6200 gallons transferred from the tug as of 6 a.m. on Tuesday.

READ MORE: Crews to begin pumping fuel from sunken B.C. tug

Tapping and pumping are expected to take place on a 24-hour schedule until complete.

The plan is to remove the tug from the water with a crane and place it on a barge for transit.

The clean-up efforts are being complicated by a frontal system that will approach the offshore waters late Tuesday, bringing gale force winds and three-to-five metre waves with it.

Response ‘inadequate’

Slett calls the response of the industry, federal and provincial governments wholly inadequate, saying the efforts have been impacted by slow response time, a lack of boats, appropriate equipment and personnel.

“One of the things that was heavily promoted by both provincial and federal government is this world-class oil clean-up process,” Slett said. “I can share with you that it really did not happen and was not really demonstrated here on the coast. We find it slow and frustrating.”

BC NDP is echoing this statement, saying B.C. needs better spill response capacity, whether the federal government tries to push new pipelines through the province or not.

“My heart goes out to members of the Heiltsuk First Nation, who must be feeling devastated by the contamination. I hope above all odds that the local clam beds aren’t affected in the long term,” said opposition leader John Horgan.

The Heiltsuk Nation says it has now launched an investigation into the incident.