Bella Bella diesel spill response questioned by Heiltsuk First Nation Chief after booms fail

Chief Marilyn Slett says booms placed around the tug boat Nathan E. Stewart, grounded in the waters off Bella Bella, have failed due to adverse weather. She's now questioning why more seaworthy booms weren't put in place immediately after the accident.

Marilyn Slett says booms meant to contain the spill for clean-up not holding up in adverse weather

Adverse weather conditions on B.C.'s Central Coast have hampered efforts to respond to a diesel spill from the tug boat Nathan E. Stewat, which ran aground on Oct. 13, 2016. (Heiltsuk First Nation)

The Heiltsuk ​Nation Chief says booms placed around a tug boat grounded in the waters off Bella Bella, B.C., have failed due to adverse weather. 

"From the air, it looks like the spill is completely free in the water," said Marilyn Slett in a written statement Saturday.

"Containment has been Heiltsuk priority from day one. Why weren't seaworthy booms put in place immediately after the spill?"

Slett flew over the area affected by the spill on Friday.

On Saturday a spokeswoman for Kirby Offshore Marine, which owns the tug, confirmed that the booms containing the spill have been compromised because of high winds and three-metre waves.

It remains unclear how much fuel spilled out into the open water as result of the storm.

This photo taken by the Heiltsuk First Nation appears to show a portion of boom meant to contain diesel broken off from the perimeter around the Nathan E. Stewart. (Heiltsuk First Nation)

The Heiltsuk release adds that oil spill response company Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) now plans to bring in more seaworthy booms.

But Slett says that it will take at least a day for the new equipment to arrive in Bella Bella, while on Saturday winds have increased to 20-25 knots with a swell of two metres, according to the latest situation report.

The report also says that an additional layer of general purpose boom and 460 metres of another type of boom will be placed around the tug boat.

​"Crews are expected to inspect the boom's integrity hourly, maintain it and replace it as necessary," said the report.

The WCMRC vessels on the water early Saturday morning "reported nothing on the [forward looking infrared cameras], no visible sheen or odour," it added. 

Still, the Heiltsuk say a critical boom broke apart on Friday and left "the last remaining barrier containing the spill vulnerable to high winds and swell." 

The Nathan E. Stewart tug remains aground on Athlone Island, approximately 19 kilometres from Bella Bella by water.

It ran aground while pushing an empty fuel barge through the Seaforth Channel shortly after midnight on Oct. 13.

Impact on fishery

NDP Leader John Horgan visited the spill site at the invitation of the Heiltsuk Nation and raised concerns Friday about the impact the incident would have on the fishery.

"It's one thing to say it's close to the clam beds, but in this case it's right at the mouth of the entrance to what has been the food basket for Heiltsuk for millennia and it's compromised now as a result of this," Horgan said from Bella Bella.

"That's the real tragedy here."

Fisheries and Oceans Canada closed nearby shellfish harvesting on Oct. 14.

The closure near Athlone Island in the Seaforth Channel affects recreational, Aboriginal and commercial fisheries for clam, geoduck, horseclam, oyster and scallops.

The Fisheries and Oceans notice said there was already a closure in the area because of red tide, or paralytic shellfish poison, that is caused by toxins.

Horgan said a spill response centre is needed on the Central Coast to improve disaster response.

Salvage crews have recovered more than 40 per cent of the 200,000 litres of fuel estimated to be in the vessel.

with files from the Canadian Press