“Not if, but when” Has happened.

In the Spring, I set off for the Great Bear Rainforest out of sheer curiosity and hopes of seeing wildlife I’ve dreamed of since childhood. Not only did I find more life and shades of green than I’ve ever seen in one place- but I also found amazing people. The Heiltsuk & Nuxalk nations: their history, art, culture and extensive knowledge of the place they call home. The region has had my heart long before I ever stepped foot there, it is a place, and people I will continue to return to for the rest of my life.

The GBR is the largest remaining tract of unspoiled temperate rainforest in the world. Home to Sandhill cranes, grizzly bears, cougars, some of the last truly wild grey wolves, humpbacks(who are just beginning to make a comeback), orcas, giant trees, every species of wild salmon, and many other wild species. It’s also probably the greatest place on Earth to be a dog.

Kusa here, chasing down the QQS(Eyes) Society’s boat on the Koeye River, a Heiltsuk organization supporting their youth, environment and culture.
Bella Coola, sovereign Nuxalk Territory- also known as the gateway to the GBR.

On Thursday, October 13th, The 30-metre Nathan E. Stewart- a tug and fuel barge operated by Texan company Kirby Offshore Marine ran aground offshore of Bella Bella, where it is now leaking the rest of it’s 50,000+gallon load of oil into Heiltsuk Waters.

Here is a the Tribal Council’s press release from the 17th.

“Recent press seems to suggest that containment efforts have been successful. Let me set the record straight: containment has not been successful, and clean-up efforts have barely begun,”
“…..It is evident that Indigenous communities bear not only the risks of tanker traffic like this, but apparently also the responsibility for clean-up…”
 — Heiltsuk On-Scene Commander William Housty

The Heiltsuk people live off of the land- and much of their food comes from the water. The spill occurred just outside Gale Pass — an important shellfish harvesting site for the Heiltsuk peoples — along with herring spawn on kelp and other fisheries. The Kirby Corporation and the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation have both insisted that the contents of the tug, marine diesel, easily dissipate and evaporate, mitigating contamination concerns. 
Meanwhile, the DFO, though slow to appear to the scene, has shut down shellfish harvesting for eleven sub-areas around the spill on Friday for an “emergency chemical contaminant closure”.

“No one was prepared for the spill.” Over a year ago, Ingmar Lee, an environmental activist and eco-touring operator said the Nathan E. Stewart tug was a “disaster waiting to happen.” Lee told Joyce Nelson from CounterPunch “there are a large number of huge vessels languishing around on-scene, trying desperately to look busy, as though they’re doing something, anything,” and a dozen people are deploying pads and stringing booms “which are utterly useless in containing the damage.”

At the site of the grounding, Kelly Brown, director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department, told Global News on Oct. 14, “It’s really bad out here. A lot of fuel is on the beach already, and fuel is in the water.” Brown also called the initial response to the spills “totally inadequate. The first responding vessels were not equipped to deal with a spill, and had to return to town to gather more gear,” he said. “The Heiltsuk are providing our own equipment because what responders have been able to provide so far is insufficient.”

Many are now questioning “the pilotage exemption” and the very existence of this quietly operated tug and barge “petroleum conduit” to Alaska.

“U.S. vessels that are under 10,000 gross tonnage, such as the Nathan E. Stewart, are often allowed to operate without a local pilot on the West Coast of Canada, if the crew meets a minimum standard of experience and licensing.” said Kevin Obermeyer, CEO for the Pacific Pilotage Authority.

Such a waiver — an exemption from the requirements of the Canada Shipping Act — had been given to the Nathan E. Stewart, which made weekly trips through the Inside Passage delivering oil to Alaska. This tug/barge unit was just one of many. According to Bloomberg News, Texas-based Kirby Offshore Marine as of 2010 is operating 57 tank barges and 64 tugboats similar to the Nathan E. Stewart, which now sits at the bottom of Seaforth Channel near Bella Bella. These waivers come from Obermeyer, who says that ‘the Oregon Treaty’ (a colonial document decreed in 1846) has established the B.C. Inside Passage as ‘open water,’ an ‘international waterway’.”

While Kirby & others are working harder to fix PR than they are to clean the Heiltsuk waters, after incident command is dismantled and the media loses interest, the Heiltsuk will still be working and dealing with consequences of reckless outside government and corporations.

“Though we are thankful that the barge was empty, we are gravely concerned about the potential ramifications of the fuel spill from the tug,… 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…
The Heiltsuk are heartbroken and angry over this environmental disaster. We don’t know how many years or decades it will be before we are able to harvest in these waters again,” said Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett.
“Yet our community members are heroic. The overwhelming majority of vessels out on the water are Heiltsuk volunteer crews. Our community members are doing their best to assist with response efforts, but have not been receiving adequate direction or training from the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation in charge of the clean up.”
Lastlight as a sunset ends behind the island of Bella Bella.

Since the incident occurred and in the days following- The Heiltsuk Tribal Council, members of the QQS(Eyes) Society and neighboring organization Pacific Wild have been documenting the situation by air, land and sea. This morning, Nathan Cullen rose at the house of commons to both acknowledge the incident, and praise the Heiltsuk for their tireless work to contain and clear the spill, while the rest of the nation ignores their efforts. Many members of the community in Bella Bella are starting fundraisers to support the relief efforts of their home- mainly ran by Heiltsuk volunteers and vessels. Many are asking where the “world class spill response” is, and when the govt. & corporations will be held accountable.

After the first week of clean up has ended, the Tribal Council released this video last night with information on the spill, footage from the spill site, and sentiment from the people of Bella Bella who have been directly effected, and will continue to be effected by this spill for years to come:

While the media will soon loose interest, the work for the Heiltsuk people has only just begun, and their livelihood effected indefinitely. Many are calling out PM Justin Trudeau for backtracking on his November ‘15 pre-election promise to ban tanker traffic on B.C.’s northern central coast, calling it one of his “top priorities”.

Since then, Enbridge and Northern Gateway Pipeline have lobbied Ottawa 86 times, federal lobbying reports reveal. Fifty-one of those meetings have taken place since August — right around the same time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau started backtracking on his commitment to banning tankers in this region.

Since October ‘15, representatives from Enbridge and Northern Gateway Pipeline met with reps. from the Prime Minister’s Office eight times, Transport Canada 10 times, Fisheries and Oceans Canada 10 times, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada 12 times, Natural Resources Canada 31 times, and mostly Liberal Members of Parliament 39 times to name just a few.

During this time Enbridge and Northern Gateway Pipeline lobbyists also met with more than 130 top-level chiefs of staff, policy directors, and ministers, records show:

The Heiltsuk people will be directly effected by this incident for years, as the spill has happened in one of their most prized harvesting locations for clams, fish and spawn on kelp(SOK). On a larger scale this, and incidents like this one, will effect the entire coast. Damage to wildlife and the ecological impact of the spill are only just beginning to be determined.

Because of this incident, the Pacific Pilotage Authority now requires these tanker barges to take on Canadian pilots, but they may still transit via the inside waters of the Great Bear Sea. The Nathan E. Stewart, and other vessels like it, carry 10,000 deadweight tons of petroleum products from Washington State to Alaska, passing through the inside waters of the Great Bear Rainforest every 10 days. These tug-barges operate by the same ‘special waiver’ given by K. Obermyer mentioned earlier. As you read this article, more tugs and vessels like the N.E. Stewart are being loaded with fuel to make the very same trip.

These are peoples homes, their livelihood, their way of life. This is the same place and the same people who, when I visited, took me in with open arms and taught me about their way of life, their land, their history, and their culture. These waters and lands are the same waters and lands of Humpback whales, Orcas, Grizzly bears and some of the last wild wolves on Earth. Bella Bella and the GBR as a whole are one of our planets last remaining gems. There is too much to lose; we cannot allow this to happen again.

“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
The Heiltsuk youth on a canoe trip with QQS(Eyes)Society, where they learn about their history, language, culture, land, and what they have to lose in the face of “progress”.

How We Can Help:

  1. 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 drafted by the team at Pacific Wild to government representatives. You can also find him on social media and call on him publicly @JustinTrudeau.
  2. Stay tuned, and share this 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