Esquimalt chief raises alarm on cleanup weaknesses in wake of diesel spill

Almost four months after 30,000 litres of diesel was dumped into Esquimalt Harbour, a nearby beach remains closed and a fishing ban in effect, raising questions about preparedness for larger spills.

Plumper Beach, located near Admirals Walk and shared by the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations, was just beginning to rebound from decades of sawmill debris, said Esquimalt Chief Andy Thomas.

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“It set our beaches back 30 years, because they were starting to come back. [Now] we can’t even walk on the beaches,” Thomas said.

The shoreline of Plumper Bay was the focus of cleanup efforts after a Vancouver Pile Driving barge broke loose in high winds and hit the shore on May 8.

Within a week of the spill, cleanup crews had recovered as much as 27,000 litres of diesel and the marine portion of the cleanup was deemed complete, the company said. Low-pressure flushing of the beach was expected to take a week or two, while small localized booms were put in place to capture runoff from oily parts of the shoreline.

Sediment and water samples were planned to monitor any contamination.

Vancouver Pile Driving, which is responsible for the cleanup and sampling, declined to comment when asked for an update this week. QM International Environmental and Industrial Services, hired to assess the shoreline cleanup, deferred to Vancouver Pile Driving.

The First Nation Health Authority has posted signs at entrances to the beach warning the public to avoid the water and shoreline. The warning is also posted online and was distributed to homes in the community.

“The advisory will be in place until the status provided shows no further risk to human health,” said Gethsemane Luttrell, of the health authority’s environmental public health services.

The health authority has not received sampling data from Vancouver Pile Driving or any monitoring agencies.

A ban on fishing and crabbing in Esquimalt Harbour also remains in place. It was issued by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, based on recommendations from the First Nation Health Authority and Island Health.

Thomas said the spill response shows weaknesses in preparedness for larger disasters. He shared his concerns Monday with the federal panel tasked with collecting input on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion Project.

The project would triple the capacity of an oil pipeline between Edmonton and Burnaby, increasing tanker traffic off Vancouver Island seven-fold.

“We’re living through a spill right now, a diesel spill in our harbour that has closed our beaches since May 8,” Thomas told the panel.

“Everyone is scrambling around, the whole process needs tightening up.”

Thomas said there is a gap in communication in the cleanup process. Unlike larger government bodies, the Esquimalt Nation doesn’t have scientists on staff, limiting its ability to act as stewards.

“When they were bringing back reports, I said: ‘Look, I’m not a scientist. I don’t know what you’re deciding on.’ So there was a big gap there and no funding for us to hire someone, a scientist, to put that into English.”

Coastal First Nations want to be part of spill-response efforts, but there needs to be more support, he said.

Plumper Beach has played an important role for the nation, historically, Thomas said. “That’s our food table. There was a time when we used to do all our clam digging and everything else on the Island and in our own territories.”

From the 1930s to 1990s, the bay was used for log storage to feed sawmills, with log booms covering more than half the bay’s area.

“It was starting to come back slowly,” Thomas said.

— With files from Cindy E. Harnett

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