British Columbia

Coast Guard chief defends response to sunken tug in B.C.

The head of Canada's Coast Guard concedes there was confusion and communication problems in the crucial hours after the Nathan E. Stewart ran around on B.C.'s Central Coast.

Tug almost empty of diesel but fuel still washing ashore

Heiltsuk First Nation says the clean-up response is poor and uncoordinated 0:45

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.

Canadian Coast Guard Commissioner Jody Thomas visited the spill site on Friday. (Chris Corday/CBC)

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.

Diesel fuel can be seen escaping a containment boom in Seaforth Channel that failed over the weekend. (Heiltsuk Nation)

"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.

Heiltsuk Nation divers were able to capture photos and video under the wreck of the Nathan E. Stewart over the weekend. (Heiltsuk Nation/April Bencze)

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.

Shoreline damage

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.

Juvenile fish are visible in the area directly around the wreck, which was loaded with 200-thousand litres of diesel. (Heiltsuk Nation/April Bencze)

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.

Diesel fuel is clearly visible on a beach near the spill. (Heiltsuk Nation/April Bencze)

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.

Crews are still trying to determine how much diesel has now soaked into beaches and shellfish beds along islands west of Bella Bella. (Heiltsuk Nation/April Bencze)

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.

Many people on B.C.'s central coast were critical of the response to the thousands of liters of diesel spilled from the sunken Nathan E.Stewart in October. (Heiltsuk Nation)

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.

"It is a long time, and as you know, there's been a promise to improve response on this coast," said Thomas.
The tugboat Nathan E. Stewart lies submerged in the Seaforth Channel near Bella Bella. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"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.

The tug company, Kirby Offshore Marine, says it is cooperating with all investigations into the incident.
Rough weather sent high waves crashing over booms containing diesel fuel from the Nathan E. Stewart on Oct. 22, 2016. (Heiltsuk Nation)

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.