British Columbia

Heiltsuk leader says community still waiting for environmental justice 5 years after 'traumatizing' oil spill

In 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat ran aground and sank in the First Nation's fishing territory on B.C.'s Central Coast, spilling 110,000 liters of diesel and heavy oils into a marine harvesting area called Gale Pass, affecting cultural and economic activities to this day.

In 2016, tugboat Nathan E. Stewart spilled 110,000 litres of diesel and oil, closing nation's harvesting site

An early picture of spill and rescue efforts for the Nathan E. Stewart near Bella Bella, B.C. The Heiltsuk First Nation says it is still reeling from the impact of the October 2016 spill on its territory. (Canadian Coast Guard)

Five years after a U.S.-owned tugboat spilled thousands of litres of diesel and heavy oil in the traditional fishing territory of the Heiltsuk First Nation, the nation's leader says the community is still reeling from the economic and cultural impact of the disaster — and waiting for environmental justice.

On Oct. 13, 2016, the Kirby Corporation's Nathan E. Stewart spilled an estimated 110,000 litres of diesel and another 2,000 litres of lubricants after it ran aground in the Seaforth Channel near Bella Bella, B.C.

The spill sent contaminants into Gale Pass, a significant Heiltsuk harvesting site for manila clam and other shellfish. The clam beds make up to $200,000 in income every year for the community.

"We're still not harvesting in that area. We're not practising our cultural activities in Gale Pass ... It's been very traumatizing for our community," said Heiltsuk Nation Elected Chief Coun. Marilyn Slett, speaking Wednesday on CBC's The Early Edition.

Chief Marilyn Slett pauses during a news conference in Vancouver in October 2018, during which the Heiltsuk Nation announced it was suing of Kirby Corporation over the Nathan E. Stewart spill. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Slett said the nation is now conducting and raising funds to pay for its own environmental impact assessment (EIA). The decision to do so was made after the nation determined Kirby Corporation was unwilling to meet its requests for comprehensive post-spill research or a health impact assessment.

In a press release issued on the first anniversary of the spill, the nation said the U.S.-owned corporation's environmental assessment would look only at sampling and monitoring work conducted in a short period of time after the oil spill and a one-week period in early 2017.

"We feel that the EIA needs to be very robust. It really needs to tell the whole story. It needs to be comprehensive and what was put forward was very narrow and would not," said Slett.

The Early Edition reached out to the Kirby Corporation for comment, but did not receive a reply.

Diesel leaked onto the shoreline of Heiltsuk territory for weeks after the Nathan E. Stewart sank. Prior to the spill, clams from the region were a significant economic generator for the Heiltsuk Nation. (April Bencze/Heiltsuk Nation)

Slett said nation members feel strongly the assessment must be done by the community, incorporating both western science and Heiltsuk traditional knowledge.

According to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, a crew member who fell asleep during his watch was likely responsible for the grounding of the tug.

In 2019, Kirby Corporation, which is based in Texas, was fined over $2.5 million after entering guilty pleas related to separate counts under the Fisheries Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Pilotage Act for the fuel spill that damaged both fish and birds, and for failing to have a pilot aboard the vessel.

At the time, Slett called the fine a "drop in the bucket for a multi-billion dollar company."

The Nathan E. Stewart is lifted off the ocean floor onto a salvage barge after sinking near Bella Bella, B.C. The vessel was on its way south through the Inside Passage from Ketchikan, Alaska, at the time of the grounding. (Zoe Hopkins)

The nation is currently involved in a civil suit against the company, as well as the provincial and federal governments.

Slett has called government response to the spill slow, ineffective, and done with little regard for the health and safety of Heiltsuk people and their way of life.

The Government of Canada did not respond to The Early Edition's request for comment.

"Oil spill regulations need to be toughened along the whole Pacific coast," said Slett. 

"These regulations, where the polluter can hold out and not pay for an EIA, like what's happening here, should not be allowed to happen." 

With files from The Early Edition