A year after a sinking tug spilled thousands of litres of fuel into the waters off Bella Bella, B.C., members of the Heiltsuk First Nation say their valuable clam beds are still contaminated.

The Kirby Corporation's Nathan E. Stewart spilled an estimated 110,000 litres of diesel and another 2,000 litres of lubricants after it ran aground in the Seaforth Channel on Oct. 13, 2016.

The spill sent contaminants into Gale Pass, a significant Heiltsuk harvesting site for manila clam and other shellfish. The clam beds earn up to $200,000 in income every year for the community.

"The impact to our community has been devastating," Chief Marilyn Slett told CBC News. "Right now there are still a lot of uncertain questions, unanswered questions around the safety of the harvesting of our resources around the incident area."

The area around the spill was closed to shellfish harvesting by Fisheries and Oceans Canada after the spill, and it has yet to be reopened.

Meal in Bella Bella

Clams are culturally and economically vital to the Heiltsuk First Nation. (Zoe Hopkins)

'There's still diesel present'

Kelly Brown, the director of integrated resource management for the Heiltsuk, said community members have consistently monitored the area and taken samples to test for contaminants.

"We know for sure that because there's still diesel present, that we're not able to harvest any of the resources in Gale Creek and Gale Pass area," Brown said.

He estimates that it will cost the community about $500,000 to complete all the necessary sampling, and wants to see more support for that from government and the Kirby Corporation.

"We're the ones that have to live here," Brown said. "[The clam fishery] is our way of life. Our lives are affected spiritually, emotionally, physically and it's a difficult time for our people."

Heiltsuk officials say they're now preparing a legal action to recover some of the damages they've suffered over the last year.

Spill

Diesel leaked onto the shorelines of islands within the Great Bear Rainforest after the Nathan E. Stewart sank near Bella Bella. (April Bencze/Heiltsuk Nation)

Province promises regulatory changes

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for B.C.'s environment ministry said the province welcomes Heiltsuk participation in recovery efforts.

"The tugboat owners have voluntarily agreed to participate in ongoing Environmental Impact Assessment work, and we are formalizing that arrangement with an EIA Plan," the ministry statement reads.

"We will soon be bringing forward regulatory changes that will explicitly enable the ministry to require recovery plans from spillers, including impact assessments."

But Slett believes what happened one year ago should serve as a warning that B.C. is not ready for increased tanker traffic along the coast.

"What we experienced is there is no really world-leading response on the B.C. coast. Those gaps still exist today and until we do something about that, our coastal communities are still vulnerable," she said.

With files from Farrah Merali

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the clam beds earn up to $150,000 in income every year for the community. The correct figure is $200,000.
    Oct 13, 2017 1:15 PM PT