British Columbia

Tug that spilled 110K litres of fuel lifted from sea floor near Bella Bella

The grounding of the Nathan E. Stewart 32 days ago has refocused debate around marine-spill response capacity on the West Coast.

Sunken tug Nathan E. Stewart has refocused debate about marine spill response capacity on the West Coast

The Nathan E. Stewart was lifted out of waters to the west of Bella Bella, B.C., on Nov. 14, 2016. (Ian McAllister/Pacific Wild)

The sunken tug that contaminated the waters of British Columbia's Central Coast with more than 100,000 litres of fuel was raised from the sea floor Monday.

The Nathan E. Stewart ran aground and sank 32 days ago west of Bella Bella, highlighting concerns about oil spill response capacity at a time when hotly-debated proposed pipelines may increase tanker traffic on the West Coast.

In the afternoon, the tug was lifted to deck level next to a barge, allowing it to drain out, and was placed on a barge in the evening.

"Getting the tug out of the water is a really important milestone, both in terms of increasing our morale, and once the tug is fully removed from the water," said Jess Housty, an elected tribal councillor for the Heiltsuk First Nation.

"We know there is no longer any risk of added pollution, which means we can safely start shoreline cleanup operations." 

Previous retrieval attempts were hampered by stormy weather and strong tides in the area.

"A lot of the vessels that are key parts of our response are small vessels that we've had to stand down for safety issues, as gales, as storms have come through here," said Housty.

There's been a lot of variables that have been outside our control, but our number one priority was to do this safely, and today was the first time we were able to comfortably do so." 

Stormy conditions on the B.C. Central Coast have hampered previous attempts to remove the tug. (Kyle Artelle/Heiltsuk Nation)

'Inadequate' response slammed

The tug was loaded with more than 237,262 litres of diesel fuel and has released an estimated 107,552 litres of diesel and 2,240 litres of lubricants into the marine environment.

To imagine how large 110,000 litres is, it's almost as large as the volume of fuel that the DOT-111 train car can carry.

The DOT-111, which is being phased out in Canada next year, is used to carry hazardous liquids, and can carry a maximum load of about 120,000 litres — similar to the volume of diesel and lubricants spilled from the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

Response to the sunken tug has refocused concerns about the existing oil spill response capacity on the West Coast — with B.C. Premier Christy Clark calling the response "inadequate" and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying the situation is "unacceptable."

Last week in Vancouver, Trudeau announced his government's $1.5-billion ocean protection plan, which includes improvements to marine safety and responses to fuel spills in the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

Housty says the extent of damage in the area, particularly to the clam beds the Heiltsuk rely on for trade, is still unknown.

"Frankly, we suspect the worst. The way the tides operate in that area ... we know the diesel was sucked right into the area where our most abundant clam beds are," she said.

"We''re still sampling to determine toxicity, but there are huge concerns for the 50 families in the community who rely  on that commercial fishery to get through Christmas. Normally, they would be out on the water right now, taking advantage of these big tides." 

The Nathan E. Stewart tugboat, owned by U.S. company Kirby Offshore Marine, is lifted off the seafloor west of Bella Bella on the B.C. Central Coast on Nov. 14, 2016. (Kyle Artelle/Heiltsuk First Nation)

With files from All Points West