On the eve of the Kinder Morgan decision, an oil-carrying vessel tests marine disaster response—and finds it lacking.
IN JUNE 2015, Focus ran a story on the risks to the coast posed by the Nathan E. Stewart, an articulated tug barge (ATB), potentially spilling millions of litres of hydrocarbon fuels from its two 300-foot barges. The article, entitled “Ingmar’s Worry,” profiled Denny Island citizen Ingmar Lee, who had been trying unsuccessfully to raise awareness for over two years about the potential of a spill from this Alaskan vessel that regularly transported bunker oil, heating oil, gasoline, aviation fuel and diesel to Alaskans through the Inside Passage.
As Lee pointed out in his Facebook blog (10,000 Ton Tanker), moving 14,000 tonnes of petroleum product in the “voluntary exclusion zone,” (the zone applies to loaded oil tankers servicing Alaska from Washington) was a mini Exxon Valdez waiting to happen. “It is just a matter of time,” he had said. Lee’s correspondence with Transport Canada had made no inroads with an agency which had shored up its concerns with a regulation requiring double-hulls for the barges as of January 2015. The Pacific Pilotage Authority had also covered themselves by a seemingly compulsory requirement for pilots in sensitive or busy waterways.
The Nathan E. Stewart, however, was given a special exemption from this rule and allowed to operate without a pilot despite a near-disaster in Alaskan waters in 2011. Ingmar Lee pointed all this out in 2015.
On October 13 of this year, Ingmar’s “worry” became Ingmar’s “fulfilled prophecy” and the consequences are being felt from here to Ottawa—but nowhere more so than the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. That’s where the tug sank with over 200,000 litres of diesel fuel, considered one of the most acutely toxic oil types. The only consolation is that it wasn’t the full load, which could have meant millions of litres of fuels being released. The petroleum barges it was pushing were mostly empty when the Nathan E. Stewart struck a reef.
In a terrible irony, however, the spill couldn’t have been more devastating to the two communities that have worked so hard to protect the coast from oil spills.
The tug hit Edge Reef near Athlone Island in the heart of Heiltsuk First Nations territory. Athlone is a classic outer coastal island with white sandy beaches on the windward western shores, sheltered estuaries full of clams, eelgrass and salt marshes, gnarly rocky reefs alive with fish, deep blue-green lagoons where dozens of species of shorebirds forage, and mossy, bog uplands where fishing wolves make day beds with vistas out over Hecate Strait.
Glimpses of Athlone can be seen in the background of Lee’s videos of the Nathan E. Stewart as it disappears underwater on October 14. As he reported in a recent blog post: “The last, lonely stand of the wretched Nathan E. Stewart, sunk and swaying on the reef, and continuing to pollute Seaforth Channel.”
The outer island of the Seaforth Channel archipelago, Athlone is only 25 kilometres from Campbell Island where the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella is located and Denny Island where Lee lives with his partner, biologist Krista Roessingh.
Environmental organizations, Pacific Wild and Raincoast Conservation Foundation, both very active in compiling research on the region’s fish and wildlife populations, base their research operations there. The spill is an hour by skiff from where the royals were gathered this summer to pay tribute to the efforts of First Nations and environmental allies to protect the region.
Jess Housty, councillor and a spokesperson on the spill for the Heiltsuk First Nation, called the spill “an environmental disaster.” The respective blogs of Lee and Housty (#heiltsukvoice) paint a very different picture of the response to the spill than what people are reading in mainstream media.
The Vancouver Sun ran the headline, “A race to drain diesel fuel from sunken tug underway off BC coast.” Roessingh characterized the response as hardly a race on October 17: “I was told that when I volunteered to come out that the WCMRC [Western Canada Marine Response Corporation] folks would be paired with each of the volunteer boats to guide us in what we were supposed to do with the clean-up. [But] this is the first time I have seen any of their crew up here and it is the third day. I don’t think people from the outside have a very good sense of what things are like up here.”
Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett described the response as “slow and frustrating”—definitely not world-class, as is so often touted. Both supplies and personnel were delayed in arriving, she said. One immediate cost will be the clam fishery that was due to open in November and normally generates a crucial $150,000 for the Nation.
Wesley Vickers and Ron Martin, two of the Heiltsuk volunteers at the spill, told of the intertidal areas covered with diesel. Housty, manning a Heiltsuk rescue operation from her office in Bella Bella and clearly exhausted after helping coordinate the local volunteer efforts, described their work as heartbreaking. A release from the Nation noted, “We have limited resources to house, feed, and manage the influx of people in our community. We are bridging fuel costs for the dozens of community members who have put themselves and their boats forward to protect and clean their precious waters. Our staff and leadership are working around the clock to ensure we’re doing everything we can in this trying time.”
After the WCMRC crews arrived and attempted to pump out the submerged tug’s fuel tanks, the storms began to hit, preventing oil-removal activities. The high winds and swells caused concern that the tug would move, causing further oil leakage and making subsequent recovery efforts even more difficult.
Chief of clean-up operations for the Heiltsuk, William Housty, lamented, “The damage has been done.”
But more came. On October 21, the Heiltsuk reported that a boom caught on a rock at low tide created a breach in a barrier, allowing diesel to escape into Gale Passage and surrounding waters, important herring spawning grounds. “We’re fighting a losing battle because the technology to fully and effectively clean up a spill doesn’t exist,” said Jess Housty.
On October 23, 50-knot winds were expected and the Heiltsuk were reporting containment booms had totally failed and that the community was in a state of shock. (WCMRC was planning to bring in more seaworthy booms.)
The slow response to the incident led Premier Christy Clark to condemn the federal government’s lack of commitment to disaster response on Canada’s West Coast. Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau did, however, quickly suspend the exemption from piloting in the Seaforth Channel for the Nathan E. Stewart and all other vessels owned by the Texan company Kirby Corporation. Lee commented: “Too little, too late.” His recommendation has always been that the 50+ ATB deliveries of Alaska’s fuels should be consolidated into one or two tankers which, like all the other deliveries by tankers, stay 20 miles offshore instead of plying the Inside Passage. Part of Lee’s worry was that the increasing use of the ATBs were “normalizing” the movement of large volumes of hydrocarbons in the Inside Passage.
Minister Garneau’s statement speaks about “a coastal strategy to improve marine safety in a meaningful way.” But many doubt there’s any meaningful, reliable way to prevent oil spills without preventing marine oil-carrier traffic itself. The Nathan E. Stewart’s demise, and the slow disaster response, have crystallized BC residents’ worst fears around transporting hydrocarbons in coastal waters.
The disaster highlights the inherent conflicts of interest that still persist. The WCMRC has a monopoly in marine oil spill response. Fifty percent of it is owned by Kinder Morgan and partners Suncorp, Shell, Imperial Oil and Chevron. Kinder Morgan’s Westridge terminal was one of Nathan E. Stewart’s fill-up stops. Is there an end in sight for this arrangement?
Another worrying trend is the appearance of the organization Clear Seas, which was set up by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the federal and Alberta governments, and the shipping industry to research and report on safe, sustainable marine shipping in Canada. Clear Seas had no media releases on the spill and were not picking up their phone on October 18. On their website it was noted Clear Seas’ executives were attending the Salish Sea Oil Spill Risk Mitigation Workshop in Seattle that week, presumably while the good people of Bella Bella were cleaning up the mess. The organization and its funders seem more invested in mitigating future oil spills in the Salish Sea than preventing or accurately reporting on existing marine safety and oil spills in real time.
We can anticipate a whole lot of shiny words coming out of this body towards December. That’s when the federal government will decide on the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Government approval of that project would mean close to 400 additional oil tankers plying coastal waters.
Meanwhile, besides working to contain and clean up the spill, the Heiltsuk Nation has launched an investigation of the Nathan E. Stewart incident. Their report will likely be the best one to read—and the one most ignored—unless a true sea change is about to begin.
Briony Penn’s latest book, The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, won the 2016 Roderick Haig-Brown Regional BC Book Prize.