British Columbia

Nathan E. Stewart incident shows Canada's spill response lacking, First Nation says

A First Nation in northern B.C. is calling out the government on its handling of a fuel spill near Bella Bella last year, saying the response was disorganized and that the nation was repeatedly denied requests for information.

Heiltsuk Nation says it was kept out of loop after a tug sank and spilled fuel in its territory in 2016

The Nathan E. Stewart ran aground and eventually sank in the autumn of 2016, leaking as much as 110,000 litres of diesel into the ocean near Bella Bella, B.C. (Heiltsuk Nation/April Bencze)

A First Nation in northern B.C. is calling the government out on its handling of a fuel spill near Bella Bella last year.

In a new report on the first 48 hours of the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart in October 2016, the Heiltsuk Nation says the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), the Coast Guard and the owners of the vessel, the Kirby Corporation, repeatedly refused to provide the nation with information about the spill.

The report also says many aspects of the spill response were inadequate, including slow response time, insufficient and ineffective equipment, a lack of safety gear, and confusion about who was in charge.

"That day, I saw a lot of chaos," Heiltsuk hereditary chief Harvey Humchitt is quoted as saying in the report.

"There was no communication, no on-scene command, no clear direction on actions to be taken to try and mitigate the situation."

TSB investigation still ongoing

The report documents 18 separate requests the nation made for information with interviews from the Kirby Corporation and various government agencies, including Transport Canada and the TSB. The nation says all but two of those requests were either denied or ignored.

The Nathan E. Stewart ran aground in the early hours of Oct. 13. 2016, near Bella Bella, in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.

The Heiltsuk Nation claims the area as part of its traditional territory. The nation says it was never consulted regarding the transportation of oil through the region.

The vessel eventually sank, spilling as much as 110,000 litres of diesel into the marine environment. Cleanup efforts were repeatedly hampered by bad weather, and the vessel wasn't recovered until more than a month after it sank.

The TSB says its investigation into the incident is still ongoing.

"Investigations are complex, and we take the time necessary to conduct a thorough investigation to advance transportation safety," said TSB spokesperson Julie Leroux in an email.

"If we uncover serious safety deficiencies during the course of our investigation, we will not wait until the final report to make them known."

With files from Greg Rasmussen.