British Columbia

First Nation places ads in Texas newspaper shaming company for tugboat fuel spill

The Heiltsuk Nation, located on B.C.'s Central Coast, has launched a public relations campaign against Houston-based company Kirby Offshore Marine Corp. by placing ads in the Houston Chronicle alerting readers to harm done after a Kirby tugboat spilled diesel in B.C. waters.

Heiltsuk Nation launches campaign against Kirby Corp. in Houston Chronicle

Ads such as the one pictured have been placed in the Houston Chronicle by the Heiltsuk Nation to draw attention to a diesel spill caused by Houston-based company Kirby Corp. in the nation's territory. (Twitter/Heiltsuk Council)

Residents of Houston, Texas had likely never heard of the Heiltsuk Nation until they read their morning paper Thursday.

The First Nation, located on B.C.'s Central Coast, placed ads in the Houston Chronicle shaming Houston-based Kirby Offshore Marine Corp. after the company pleaded guilty to a fuel spill from a tugboat that sank in Heiltsuk fishing territories in October 2016.

Kirby Corp. was fined $2.9 million in penalties on Tuesday in provincial court, but the nation has also filed a civil suit and launched a public relations campaign that included the ads on Kirby's home turf.

"There is not a dollar figure that we can put on our losses that is going to suddenly restore balance for us," said Jess Housty, an elected Heiltsuk councillor, who added there are 40 families whose livelihoods are affected by the damage caused when a Kirby tugboat spilled 110,000 litres of diesel and heavy oils.

The Nathan E. Stewart, a tugboat owned by Kirby Corp. spilled 100,000 litres of diesel and heavy oil into the Heiltsuk Nation's fishing territory in 2016. (Heiltsuk Nation)

The ads say "Does Kirby care?' and direct people to a website where they can sign an open letter asking Kirby Corp. to take additional steps to rectify the situation, according to Houston Chronicle reporter Andrea Leinfelder.

"I think the idea is to add some public pressure in the hometown," Leinfelder told Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk. "The company is definitely big here."

She said she had never heard of the Heiltsuk Nation or the spill before this week. 

"Honestly, we were going to do just a few paragraphs on the criminal charges," said Leinfelder, "but once we got on the phone with the nation ... we knew it was definitely a bigger story."

In an open letter to Kirby Corp. CEO David Grzebinski on the campaign website, Heiltsuk Nation chief Marilyn Slett wrote: "I would much rather work with you to make things right, than to keep fighting you in courtrooms and the court of public opinion, in the pursuit of justice." 

Heiltsuk media relations spokesperson Andrew Frank said the ads will continue to run on the newspaper's website "for the foreseeable future."

The nation has also purchased ads on Facebook geo-targeting the Houston area and is considering buys in other Houston media outlets.

Leinfelder said it is too soon to gauge the public opinion of Chronicle readers, but she will continue to follow the story as it plays out in Houston.

To hear the complete interview with Andrea Leinfielder, click on the audio link below:

Andrea Leinfelder, reporter at the Houston Chronicle, discusses ads placed in the paper by the Heiltsuk Nation that shame Houston-based company Kirby Corp., which was found legally responsible for a diesel spill in the nation's territory. 4:46

With files from Daybreak North