Coast Guard chief defends response to sunken tug in B.C.
Tug almost empty of diesel but fuel still washing ashore
The head of Canada's Coast Guard concedes there was confusion and communication problems in the crucial hours after the Nathan E. Stewart ran aground on B.C.'s Central Coast.
"There had been some significant issues in communicating with the tug," Coast Guard Commissioner Jody Thomas told CBC News during a visit to Bella Bella.
But Thomas insists it's too soon to know if those issues contributed to the severity of the diesel spill near Gale Passage, not far from the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella.
"Booming the vessel at night, on a reef with wind and a swell — it was difficult work," said Thomas.
"I understand why the Heiltsuk Nation is upset with the response. It's a difficult environment."
Heiltsuk criticize reponse
Thomas's comments fill in some key gaps about what happened in the early hours of October 13, after the heavy tug ran aground pulling an empty fuel barge.
Many Heiltsuk first responders told CBC News they believe the spill could have been mitigated if the tug could have been pulled away from the shoreline so that it wasn't repeatedly hitting rocks in heavy swells.
But they say the crew resisted.
"They [the crew] said the tug hadn't been breached and the barge hadn't been breached," said Thomas.
The American-owned barge, which was empty but normally carries oil products to communities in Alaska, has now been towed to dry dock in Vancouver.
Damage to the underside of the tug turned out to be severe and it still has not been moved.
A Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue vessel from Bella Bella was on the scene within an hour of the sinking and rescued the tug's seven-person crew.
Thomas wouldn't directly confirm that the crew resisted being towed, but she agrees it was a tactic some at the scene wanted to try.
"Towing looked like, at first blush, the best option. It wasn't going to be possible," said Thomas.
Thomas was in Bella Bella over the weekend to meet with Heiltsuk leaders and to assure them that everything that can be done is being done to contain the diesel spill.
The latest situation report, issued Monday afternoon, says after a weekend of bad weather and delays, over 110,000 litres of diesel has now been removed from the tug.
But the first evidence of damage to the shoreline is also starting to turn up.
Trapped oil has been found in at least three coves on islands in the Seaforth Channel, according to a news release from the Heiltsuk Nation.
Shoreline crews have been hampered by high winds and rain as they investigate the extent of the spill.
While many in the community are pleased with the resources now at the spill site, they also blame the Coast Guard for directing an ineffective initial response.
They say the first booms set up around the stricken tug were inadequate and were ripped apart by the tides. Over the weekend, other booms were destroyed by strong waves.
On Friday, a CBC crew on the water near the tug observed a large slick outside the boomed area, stretching for several kilometres.
20 hours too long?
The Heiltsuk claim it took 20 hours after the sinking for the first cleanup resources to arrive at the scene from Prince Rupert.
"We are talking about having more skimmers, more boom, training people, more personal protective equipment and having First Nations trained to be that on site response."
Also today, Canada's Transportation Safety Board announced its beginning an investigation into the cause of the grounding.
So far, it has not offered any explanation as to how the tug's crew could have missed a series of well marked turns leading into the channel.