It was once a thriving community where hundreds of workers gathered to process the bounty of the sea, but Namu is now a nightmare ghost town and an environmental threat that’s slowly crumbling into the Pacific.
Buildings that contain
asbestos insulation are sagging, fuel tanks rest on rotting
plank floors, old batteries and engine parts spill out of an
engineering shed into the water below, and the ice house – once a
central structure in the industrial fishing complex – has toppled
over, littering the deck of the Chilcotin Princess, a 570-tonne
cargo ship that appears to be sinking at the dock.
The freighter was brought in a few years ago by the site’s owner
to facilitate a cleanup that never happened. Now she is a rusting
hulk that “has caught the disease,” said Eric Peterson, founding
director of the Hakai Beach Institute, which is located on nearby
Calvert Island. “Every time I go into the bay I keep thinking the
Chilcotin Princess won’t be visible any more,” he said.
Those who live closest to Namu are calling for it to be cleaned
up before it spills toxins into the ocean, but neither the
government nor the site owner see it as a high risk.
Mr. Peterson, whose non-profit science foundation has been doing
archeological work excavating 11,000-year-old native village sites
behind the cannery, said Namu has slowly been crumbling since the
industrial operation shut down about 40 years ago. But he fears
that process is now escalating.
“I’ve seen that place decay so much,” Mr.
Peterson said on a recent visit as his boat idled beside the
rotting docks. “It’s like visiting a person whose health is
failing. It’s shocking each time you see how much they’ve collapsed
since the last time.”
Namu is located on British Columbia’s central coast about 35
kilometres southeast of Bella Bella, in the Great Bear Rainforest,
and the first cannery at Namu opened in 1893. BC Packers, one of
the province’s dominant fishing companies for decades, bought the
operation in 1928, developing it into a sprawling complex including
salmon and herring processing plants, warehouses, a power plant and
housing for workers and their families. All of it was linked by
boardwalks and much of it was built on pilings over the
BC Packers (now long dissolved) closed the Namu cannery in about
1970 as salmon stocks diminished. Since then it has had a handful
of occupants, running a fuel dock and serving as caretakers, but
there is no longer anyone there.
“Until this year you could say ‘it’s under control because
there’s a caretaker,’ but now it’s an abandoned site.… For the
first time in 11,000 years there’s nobody living at Namu,” Mr.
Peterson said, referring to the long archeological record. “And
just look at it now. It’s a ticking time bomb.”
Ian Gill, a consultant and former Ecotrust Canada director, said
the old cannery is threatening to become an environmental
“There is asbestos on the site, old fuel tanks … contaminated
soils,” he said in an e-mail. “This at the mouth of one of the most
productive salmon ecosystems on the coast and … a site of huge
cultural importance to the Heiltsuk.… The site is
“It is disgraceful what has been done to one of the most
important cultural and ecological areas on the coast,” agreed Ian
McAllister, of Pacific Wild. He said his environmental group, which
is based near Bella Bella, filed complaints last year with the
Department of Fisheries and Oceans about “all the deleterious
material that was falling into the salmon estuary.” But nothing has
been done, he said.
DFO directed questions to Environment Canada, which refused a
request for an interview and issued a one-sentence statement: “As
part of its regular monitoring activities, Environment Canada’s
Enforcement Branch is aware of the fish processing plant in Nemu
[sic]. However, the department has no information which would
suggest a contravention of federal environmental legislation has
David Milne, head of Namu Properties Ltd. which owns the site,
said he bought it more than a decade ago hoping that, with its
historic buildings and then still-functional boardwalks, it could
become a coastal tourism destination. “We partnered up with a
fellow who was going to turn it into a resort and then it didn’t
work out,” he said.
Mr. Milne said he has been trying to sell the site for years and
has been talking with the Heiltsuk First Nation. But he admitted
“negotiating a reasonable price with them that takes into account
the cost of the cleanup” has been a challenge.
Is Namu a danger?
22,000: Number of contaminated sites listed nationally by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.
4,500: Number of those nationally listed sites that are located in British Columbia.
1,600: Number of the 22,000 federal sites are classified as “high priority for action.”
557: Number of the
federal high-priority sites in B.C.
685: Number of contaminated sites listed separately by the B.C. Ministry of Environment.
50: Number of the provincial sites that are listed as high risk; 615 are non-high risk; and the remaining 20 are pending classification.
0: Number of times Namu shows up on either the federal or provincial lists of contaminated sites.
Mr. Milne, who hasn’t visited the site in six months, said he
doesn’t think the deterioration is as bad as some say and estimates
it could be cleaned up for $400,000 to $600,000.
At the suggestion that it might cost millions, he replied:
“Well, again, it depends what you do.… All the stuff that’s on dry
land is not an issue. But it’s the herring reduction plant that’s
fallen in and that was back to the days of BC Packers, it was in
pretty bad shape then and it just continues to get worse, so
something has to be done about it soon.”
Mr. Milne disagreed that the Chilcotin Princess is sinking.
“There’s no issues with it going down. It’s floating very well. It
takes rainwater in so it has to be pumped every once in a while, so
I’ve got some guys going in to check the moorings and pump it here
in the next month or so,” he said.
Asked if he was surprised at how quickly the site was falling
down, Mr. Milne said: “Mother Nature’s pretty harsh, so yeah it
deteriorates over a long period of time, but I don’t think it’s
picking up speed as far as deterioration, it’s just continuing to,
you know, erode, pilings and stuff like that.”
Mel Innes, Chief of the Heiltsuk First Nation, said his band
would like to buy the site and re-establish a village at Namu, but
is worried about the contamination. “We just don’t have the money
to clean it up,” he said.
Harvey Humchitt Sr., Hereditary Chief of the Heiltsuk, said he
went to Namu as a boy with his family and had a job in the fish
plant. He said there were 300 to 400 workers at the cannery over
the summer, about half of them native, and the plant provided
important income to bands all along the coast. “It was incredible,”
he said of the operation.
Looking up at the docks where he once worked, Mr. Humchitt
fought back tears. “I grew up here and – oh,” he said, putting his
hand over his heart. “I don’t think it’s worth anything to anybody
else but the Heiltsuk people.”
Chris Tollefson, executive director of the Environmental Law
Centre at the University of Victoria, said the provincial
government can order a cleanup if pollutants are migrating off a
The B.C. Ministry of Environment wasn’t able to provide a
spokesperson to talk about Namu.
Editors’ Note: A version of this article published in print on June 28, 2014, and online mistakenly referred to Namu Properties Ltd. owner David Milne as Doug Milne. This version has been corrected.