British Columbia

Bella Bella diesel spill cleanup complicated by severe weather

A tugboat that ran aground and spilled diesel fuel near the ecologically sensitive Great Bear Rainforest has reignited arguments against tanker traffic. Meanwhile, cleanup is being complicated by severe weather.

Local First Nations and NDP call for a moratorium on tanker traffic

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)

A tug boat that ran aground near Bella Bella loaded with 59,924 gallons of diesel fuel has reignited calls to ban tanker traffic in B.C. waters.

The Nathan E. Stewart was pushing the empty fuel barge, DBL 55, owned by the U.S. company Kirby Offshore Marine, when it ran aground on Edge Reef near Athlone Island early Thursday morning, spilling diesel fuel into the marine ecosystem.

According to the most recent update provided by the U.S. company, two of the tug's fuel tanks were breached. The vessel is still partially submerged in nine metres of water. The company said adverse weather is complicating cleanup efforts.

Overflights of the crash area showed a sheen throughout nearby Gale Passage and a heavier concentration of oil with dull, purple colours around the tug. 

According to the report, most of the diesel appears to be boomed and contained but some is still seeping out.

Crews are now prioritizing deploying more booms at two points in Gale Passage and additional booming around the site of the submerged tug.

An aerial photo of the tug boat as it sank. (Elizabeth Harris)

A four-person command post, which includes commanders from Kirby Offshore Marine, the B.C. Government, the Canadian Coast Guard and the Heiltsuk First Nations, has been established to make decisions about response efforts. 

Responders from the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation are also on the scene.

Calls for tanker bans

With cleanup efforts underway, the potential environmental impacts of the crash have already drawn widespread criticism from local First Nations and the federal NDP, which is calling on the Trudeau government to fulfil a promise for a moratorium on tanker traffic on B.C.'s North Coast.

"We just don't have the equipment on the coast to react when a spill like this happens," said Nathan Cullen, NDP MP for Skeena—Bulkley Valley, on CBC's The Early Edition.

Cullen said it's been more than a year since Trudeau promised the moratorium. He said the tug's grounding and subsequent sinking is a sign of things to come.

For one, the tug boat crashed on its return voyage after delivering 52,000 barrels of oil, said Cullen.

"It could have been much, much worse," he said. "We're waiting — we want that permanent ban in place."

Communities upset

Surrounding First Nations are concerned significant damage has been done to marine ecosystems — specifically the local clam populations.

Marilyn Slett, the chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council, says her community's economy relies on the clam harvest and the local species will undoubtedly be harmed because of the spill.

The sheen of diesel can be seen on the water near where the tug boat sank after running aground. (Ingmar Lee)

"The effects will be felt by our community," she said. "We've worked so hard to preserve the integrity of our ecosystems around our coast."

Slett says volunteers are working tirelessly alongside the Coast Guard to contain the spill area and keep cleanup booms deployed.

Weather complicating cleanup

But the violent weather that has struck the Pacific Northwest isn't making recovery operations easy.

As storms continue to slam Vancouver Island and the rest of the Lower Mainland, cleanup efforts have been complicated, according Kirby's updates.

Heavy winds and currents have pushed the 2,500 feet of boom out of place.

And on Thursday evening, the empty barge broke away from the tug boat and began drifting away. It has since been recovered by cleanup crews and is now anchored at the mouth of Dundavan Inlet. 

Gale force winds of 34 to 47 knots are expected to continue to hit the crash site overnight, according to Environment Canada.

The Heiltsuk Nation is worried diesel that escaped from the damaged tug boat will contaminate the environmentally-sensitive harvesting area. (Elizabeth Brown)

Divers have been able to plug several of the leaking vents, and plans are currently underway to extract the remaining fuel before safely removing the tug.

Federal government responds

In an official statement released to the CBC, the federal government said it's in the early stages of investigating the inciddent.

"Transport Canada has dispatched technical expertise to support the response activities and will conduct a compliance and enforcement inspection ... once the emergency is stable and will not hesitate to take appropriate action," it said.

"Transport Canada's first priority is the safety and protection of the public and the environment."

With files from CBC's The Early Edition and BC Almanac

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Tug boat crash reignites debate over B.C. tanker ban