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British Columbia, Canada – On the morning of October 13, Tracy Robinson, a hunter and fisherwoman living in the Heiltsuk First Nation community of Bella Bella, British Columbia, was preparing to go out on to the ocean, when the news reached her: An American tugboat and oil barge transiting Canadian waters had driven into a reef in nearby Seaforth Channel.
Fearing the worst, Robinson and her partner jumped into their boat and rushed to the scene. They arrived to find the tug still attached to its massive floating barge, but almost entirely under water.
Earlier that night the tugboat Nathan E Stewart, heading south after delivering fuel to Alaska, missed its turn into the channel and drove straight into the rocks off Athlone Island.
Although the 100-metre fuel barge it pushed was empty, the tug carried more than 200,000 litres of diesel and other industrial oils that were now leaking into the Pacific.
“I was in tears,” Robinson said. “The water was murky and the scent was overpowering. You couldn’t smell the fresh ocean breeze that you’re used to. It was all diesel, as far as the eye could see.”
For Robinson the tug couldn’t have run aground in a worse spot. Heiltsuk First Nation Territory is located at the heart of the celebrated Great Bear Rainforest – the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest whose land and waters contain some of the greatest biodiversity of life on earth.
One of the most ecologically abundant nodes of that region, an area known to the Heiltsuk as Qvuqvai – or Gale Creek – sits metres away from the crash site.
The narrow passage between islands contains ancient village sites where, for millennia, residents have harvested traditional seafood such as clams, salmon, crab, sea cucumbers, urchins, and seaweed for the traditional roe-on-kelp herring egg harvest.
A horrified Robinson and others watched helplessly from their boats as the widening, rainbow-hued diesel slick moved slowly towards the beaches and coves in the pass.
Since that morning weeks ago, the Heiltsuk and first responders have been working tirelessly to contain and mitigate the slick that has contaminated the food-rich shores of those low-lying islands abutting the open ocean.
That was our lifeline and breadbasket. We've worked so hard to steward this territory to protect it for future generations. You have no idea how difficult it is for our community to have to deal with this.
The Heiltsuk, who have no significant oil-spill response capacity of their own, charge that official containment and cleanup efforts have been incompetent and disorganised – belying the world-class marine safety system that Canada and its industry partners have boasted about for years.
It took almost one full day for responders to arrive at the site, they say.
Containment and absorbent booms have been ineffective in containing the spill, often breaking in rough weather and storms and littering beaches with additional diesel. Divers were able to tap some fuel from the tug’s tanks.
But around half of the boat’s roughly 200,000 litres of diesel are believed to have escaped into the water.
Residents of Bella Bella and neighbouring Denny Island have been at the frontline of the response, laying thousands of metres of boom, flushing out beaches, and documenting the impact of the spill, often at great physical and psychological strain – including the effects of inhaling diesel fumes.
A variety of fish and birds, seals, crabs and otters have been found dead near the sheen. The spreading contamination has resulted in shellfish harvesting closures in the area.
“We have fuel on many beaches and our clam beds have been destroyed,” said Heiltsuk elected chief Marilyn Slett.
“That was our lifeline and breadbasket. We’ve worked so hard to steward this territory to protect it for future generations. You have no idea how difficult it is for our community to have to deal with this,” she told Al Jazeera.
The cause of the crash is under investigation by US and Canadian authorities.
Jim Guidry, executive vice-president of vessel operations for the US-based Kirby Offshore Marine, which owns the Nathan E Stewart, apologised to the Heiltsuk and to British Columbians days after the incident.
In response to questions from Al Jazeera, Kirby Offshore Marine said that it is “fully cooperating” with the investigation.
The tug was still leaking fuel when it was pulled from the seabed by a giant floating crane on Monday, November 14, over a month after the spill.
The Canadian government had allowed the Nathan E Stewart (and other tugs and barges) to transit the narrow inside passages and channels without the usual requirement of a Canadian pilot with local knowledge of the area – an exemption that has since been revoked.
The fact that the tug missed the turn into the channel and drove straight into the rocks has fuelled speculation that the ship’s pilot may have fallen asleep.
The Heiltsuk say that had the Nathan E Stewart been pushing petroleum, they would have had a far different spill on their hands.
“We had a 50-50 chance that this barge could have been full when this happened,” Jess Housty, a member of the Heiltsuk tribal council, said in a video released by the Heiltsuk nation. “Had it been full we would be in a significantly worse situation. I don’t even know how to quantify how much worse it would be.”
This comparatively smaller incident has confirmed long-standing fears over a number of controversial fossil fuel pipeline and tanker projects slated for the British Columbia coast.
In September, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved, with environmental conditions, a Malaysian-led liquefied natural gas (LNG) project on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert. Job creation and economic investment were cited as key factors motivating the decision.
The LNG site would occupy the entrance to the Skeena River Watershed – one of the world’s last intact salmon systems. The decision prompted an outcry. First Nation groups have filed a lawsuit against the project, with some on social media calling for a Canadian version of the Standing Rock Sioux protests to stop it.
Two other pipeline-tanker projects on the coasts, including the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain project in greater Vancouver, await similar federal rulings.
Trudeau campaigned last year on a platform critical of his heavily pro-oil predecessor, Stephen Harper.
In addition to promising more forthright and genuine dealings with First Nations, he pledged to formalise a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic on British Columbia’s north coast – a directive spelled out in the mandate letter to his transport minister after he won the election.
It has yet to be implemented.
“That promise was very important to many British Columbians because it showed his understanding of what matters to people on the coast,” said Nathan Cullen, a federal MP with the opposition New Democratic Party representing the region of Northwest British Columbia in question.
“Now that Trudeau’s in government, that promise no longer seems important to him any more,” he told Al Jazeera.
Following the mounting criticism over the Kirby diesel spill and past and pending pipeline decisions, Trudeau announced a $1.1bn National Ocean Protections Plan to improve marine safety nation-wide.
“As a community, we need to protect our magnificent oceans,” he said during the announcement, adding that the move was “long overdue”.
But critics who had hoped that Trudeau would use the spill to make good on his promise to ban tankers on the North Coast say his announcement focuses on spill mitigation rather than prevention.
The prime minister’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.
After this experience, the Heiltsuk and other coastal first nations say they’re now convinced that there is no such thing as effective oil-spill mitigation and cleanup – especially in an area as tumultuous and storm-lashed as British Columbia’s north coast.
They’re holding Trudeau to his promise, adding that their communities will be safe only if American fuel shipments transiting the area instead travel in safer ships far offshore.
“We also need to look at these smaller vessels carrying petroleum,” said William Housty, the board chair of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department.
“That’s US oil that’s going up our waters to Alaska. We’re sacrificing all we have for Americans to move their product. Why should we shoulder all the risk? They need to find another way to pass their oil to each other.”
Whatever the government decides in the coming months, it won’t mitigate the ecological damage done by the diesel spill, which the Heiltsuk worry will take many years to reverse.
“The hardest thing is knowing that I’m not going to teach my children how to harvest our traditional seafood from Gale Creek,” said Robinson.
“My kids hug me every day when I come home, saying ‘thank you for cleaning up the oil’. It’s heartbreaking to tell them that Mummy and Daddy had to be out recovering diesel from the place we, our nation, gets our food.”