British Columbia

Booms fixed after wind spreads diesel fuel from tug sunk near Bella Bella

The booms containing spilled diesel fuel from a sunken tug 20 kilometres west of Bella Bella, B.C., have been fixed, but delays allowed diesel fuel to spread, along with fears for endangered abalone and other ocean wildlife.

Spill area home to endangered abalone, clams, sea urchin and juvenile salmon, Heiltsuk First Nation says

Booms around a tug that ran aground near Bella Bella, B.C, broke down 10 days after the accident. (Heiltsuk Nation)

The booms containing spilled diesel from a sunken tug 20 kilometres west of Bella Bella have been fixed, but delays allowed the fuel to spread, along with fears for endangered abalone and other ocean wildlife.

Gale-force winds and three-metre waves hampered efforts to fix the failed booms, but officials say they've replaced the containment system.

It's unclear how much diesel fuel has spilled, but the tug had 220,000 litres on board when it ran aground on Oct.13.

Rough seas broke booms holding back diesel from the Nathan E. Stewart near Bella Bella, B.C. (Heiltsuk Nation)

A spokeswoman from Kirby Offshore Marine, the tug's owners, say the company worked to reposition and replace the booms as fast as the high winds and battering waves allowed.

"I don't want to say it's completely contained but we do have multiple rings of the boom around the vessel, we do have substantial quantities of liquids, diesel fuel that's been pumped off the vessel ... it's an ongoing process," said Matt Woodruff, the information officer for the unified command centre for the spill.

According to the Heiltsuk First Nation, less than half of the fuel has been recovered, and that's fanned fears the fuel will threaten efforts to reintroduce endangered abalone — sea snails — in the spill area.

Winds up to 50 knots were forecast on Sunday and the command centre reported diesel spreading at least one kilometre beyond the containment area, according to a press release from the Heiltsuk First Nation.

Fears are growing that the diesel will spread to Gale Passage, which is a "highly sensitive ecological area," said the First Nation.

"In the first week of the spill, we had the largest tides of the month at 17.4 feet," said Heiltsuk aquatics manager Mike Reid.

"Even without bad weather, the speed of tides rushing through the spill site are likely to flush diesel into the area," he said.

Rough weather sent high waves crashing over booms containing diesel fuel from the Nathan E. Stewart on Oct. 22, 2016. (Heiltsuk Nation)

Reid is worried about diesel contamination of the passage – an area he believes is vital for a variety of clam species, sea cucumbers, sea urchin, juvenile salmon and herring, eelgrass, kelp and other marine species.

The south end of Gale Passage opens into an important herring spawning area, and the First Nation has been working to recover endangered abalone in the spill area near the sunken tug.

The spokeswoman for the tug's owners says while it is unclear how much fuel has spread into the open water, no damaged wildlife has been detected or captured since the rough weather began Friday.

"Whenever there's an event like this, you can never go fast enough, we would all want it to be cleaned up instantly, it can never go fast enough," said Woodruff.

But Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett says her community is in shock of the incident and is questioning why more seaworthy booms weren't installed immediately after the spill occured.

A tug boat that ran aground and sank near British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest is seen on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016 in this aerial handout photo. (Western Canada Marine Response Corp/The Canadian Press)

With files from Canadian Press