The Heiltsuk First Nation says it’s considering legal action against the US-company whose tug ran aground in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.
The Nathan E. Stewart hit bottom off Althone Island west of Bella Bella around 1 am Thursday morning, loaded with around 200,000 litres of diesel fuel and pushing an empty fuel barge.
Cheif Marilyn Slett says while the Nation is still surveying the extent of the damage, conversations have already begun about making a case against the vessel’s owners, Texas-based Kirby Offshore.
She says the Nation’s economy is set to take a massive hit, after fisheries officials closed the area due to chemical contamination.
“I’m sure it’s ruined the season. You know, most of the areas that have oil up on the beaches, that’s 60% of where our clam diggers harvested last year. It’s going to have an immediate impact,” Slett said.
She says while cleanup teams appear to have stemmed any further leaking from the downed vessel, the existing slicks continue to spread, and clam diggers have been grounded just weeks before they would have begun work.
“Our main harvesting sites for the clam harvest has been affected and essentially shut down by DFO. You know they sent out an email this morning shutting down a number of beaches, the community is devastated.”
Slett says for now, the Nation is working in collaboration with other agencies to try and minimize the impact of the spill as quickly as possible.
Heiltsuk members have also set up an crowdfunding campaign in the wake of the incident.
After the grounding, Western Canada Marine Response Corp. was activated at 4:30 am. It had two smaller vessels on scene by mid morning, with the main response including crew, vessels, and additional booming arriving from Prince Rupert around 6 pm.
A joint cleanup effort is now underway involving WCMRC, the Coast Guard, the province, Kirby Offshore and the Heiltsuk Nation.
The empty fuel barge has since been towed to Dundavan Inlet, while the tug which is completely immersed save for its mast has now been boomed off and crews are working on pumping out the remaining fuel.
Teams will then attempt to refloat and remove it.
The Nathan E. Stewart is an Articulated Tug Barge (ATB), a 100 foot vessel that pushes a barge capable of carrying at least 5.5 million litres (35,000 barrels) of petroleum product.
The vessel regularly plies the inside passage, and was southbound from Alaska when it struck.
It was operating under a waiver from the Pacific Pilotage Association at the time which exempted it from having a Canadian pilot on board.
That waiver has since been rescinded.