Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Comment: Heiltsuk diesel-spill site too tough to clean up

I am a Raincoast Conservation Foundation biologist lucky enough to study black and grizzly bear populations in Heiltsuk Territory and to call Bella Bella home. I’m often astounded by the richness of this area.

I am a Raincoast Conservation Foundation biologist lucky enough to study black and grizzly bear populations in Heiltsuk Territory and to call Bella Bella home. I’m often astounded by the richness of this area.

Unfortunately, my time recently has been spent in awe, not of ecological and cultural treasures, but of the aftermath of a petroleum tug-barge tanker crashing into one of them.

Almost two weeks ago, the Nathan E. Stewart drove straight into a reef in Heiltsuk waters in the middle of the night. Fortunately, the barge was empty, but the tug sank and began leaking marine diesel. In the aftermath of the accident, it took more than a week to remove the remaining leaking oil from the tug, and, two weeks in, the tug is still in the water, diesel slicks are still being observed and area beaches remain contaminated.

That this happened is beyond disappointing, but where it happened is devastating. Qvúqvai and surrounding waters is a place where I’ve shared a warm summer day with a superpod of 60 orcas, a cold, blustery week with wolves eating herring roe right off the beach, and countless commutes delayed by unexpected encounters with whales, porpoises, and bears. 

Notably, this is a place of immense significance to the Heiltsuk Nation. Qvúqvai is a place where families, stories and names come from. It provides the most important clam beds in the territory (now closed due to contamination), providing considerable employment in the winter. It provides seaweed for traditional roe-on-kelp harvest of herring eggs. Edible seaweed is harvested nearby, as are many species of salmon and other fish. Not long ago, it was a prime spot to harvest abalone, and the very reef upon which the Nathan E. Stewart crashed remains habitat for this endangered species.

Since the sinking, I have spent a handful of days at the wreck as an observer for the Heiltsuk Nation. The contrasts are striking. After the accident, an oil slick covered the very spot I’d previously seen that superpod of killer whales. A pack of wolves was spotted patrolling a contaminated shoreline. We have seen humpbacks swim by, snow geese migrate past by the hundreds and heard radio reports of sea otters, orcas, and deer, all with the sunken tug looming in the background.

Immediately behind the wreck, I was ashore for an afternoon, where absorbent booms soaked with diesel have been left on the beach for a week now, and have since broken open, littering the beach with small pieces of absorbent material, polystyrene foam and diesel sheens.

This is just upslope of beds of (once) edible California mussels, large patches of eelgrass and a dizzying array of seaweeds, anemones, sculpins, snails, chitons, barnacles and encrusting algaes. At low tide, the usual rich smell of ocean meeting air has been replaced by a nauseating smell of diesel.

Watching attempts at containment, recovery and cleanup has made one thing abundantly clear — reversing spills in this marine environment is basically impossible. Certainly, improvements could be made to the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, the group responsible for oil spills on the coast, but it’s painfully clear that no matter what personnel or equipment are shipped in, this environment is simply not conducive to cleanup, with responders at the mercy of rocks, waves, winds and the remoteness of the site.

Weather has often been too rough for people to work on the wreck. Booms have been torn apart in front of our eyes, with surfable waves crashing over them, making any thought of containment in this environment laughable. 

But the weather we witnessed was nothing compared to the storms we get in the winter, or the usual weather experienced just around the corner.

This spill has considerably jeopardized an incredibly important area, but it is just a hint of what could have happened. Had the barge been travelling fully loaded, orders of magnitude more petroleum would be contaminating a significantly larger swatch of the Great Bear Sea. I can’t even imagine what would have happened had this been a full-sized tanker.

That this crash happened is an important reminder that no matter what safeguards are in place, accidents do happen.

Oil-carrying ships loaded with modern safety equipment do drive straight into islands, in three kilometre-wide channels, on calm clear nights, let alone in more challenging areas or conditions. When they do, the damage is done.

What has happened at Qvúqvai is a striking reminder of what’s at stake with proposed oil-tanker traffic on the B.C. coast, and the enormous risk if projects such as Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain ever go ahead.

Kyle Artelle is a biologist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation and PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks