Tribe faults Canada, Kirby in Nathan E. Stewart spill response

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The following is the text of a news release from the Heiltsuk Nation:

(VANCOUVER, British Columbia) — A Heiltsuk Nation investigation released Thursday into the first 48 hours of the Nathan E. Stewart oil spill exposes failures in Canada’s emergency response measures and repeated refusals by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and Kirby Corp. to disclose information to the Heiltsuk about events unfolding in their territory in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.

The 75-page investigation report sets out a chronology of the first 48 hours after the American tug-barge missed at least one course correction and ran aground, spilling more than 110,000 liters of diesel into an important Heiltsuk food harvesting and cultural site in Gale Passage on Oct. 13, 2016.

“That day changed everyone’s life — everyone was grieving. Gale Creek is where we harvest food for the community, it’s the site of one of our ancient tribal groups, it’s where our people go for ceremonial practices,” said Heiltsuk Chief Councilor Marilyn Slett. “Throughout this disaster, government didn’t cooperate with us and didn’t want to answer our questions, so we needed to conduct our own investigation into what happened for our community members.”

The investigation — based on information from first responders, Coast Guard and Unified Command — reveals a lack of spill response materials; ineffective booms and delays in employing them; a lack of safety instructions and gear for Heiltsuk first responders exposed to diesel and dangerous marine conditions; and confusion over who was in charge in the early hours of the spill.

The report also documents failed attempts by the Heiltsuk to gain access from the Transportation Safety Board and company to the vessel’s logbook, black box, crew statements, crew training records, barge history and other critical information.

The investigation provides a record of Nathan E. Stewart oil spill history and litigation against the tug — which was waived from requiring a local pilot on board — and indicates Coast Guard personnel were aware that First Nations had repeatedly instructed the fuel barge not come through their waters.

“The Heiltsuk undertook this investigation in our territory as an act of defining who we are,” said Slett, whose nation signed a reconciliation agreement with Canada in March for joint decision-making over land and marine resources in their traditional territories. “The Heiltsuk were never consulted by Canada on whether we agreed with the Nathan E. Stewart transporting oil through our territories, or with its exemption from having a local pilot. The way Canada handled this situation does not reflect the approach the federal government says it wants to take in developing a nation-to-nation relationship.”

At the end of March, a DFO emergency harvesting closure was still in effect in Gale Creek, an area the community relies on for income from commercial fishing, and food for personal and ceremonial use.

“I am hurt, upset, and angered by this. I had two kids under 16 out there and this area was where we showed them how to provide for their families,” said commercial clam fisherman Robert Johnson. “My family gets 80 to 90 percent of what we harvest out of that area: clams, cockles, kelp, seaweed, halibut, lingcod, salmon, mussels, to name a few.”

Click here to read the complete report.

By Professional Mariner Staff