Namu is an abandoned cannery site that is raising troubling questions about the government’s ability to protect the environment on British Columbia’s Central Coast.
If Victoria and Ottawa can’t step in when an old fish plant starts to collapse into the sea, how can officials be trusted to guard against the potentially larger threats posed by oil tankers and LNG facilities, which have been proposed in the same region?
Namu operated as a fish cannery from 1893 until the 1970s. While it thrived, government enjoyed the taxes and industry reaped the profits.
But where are those players now that the town, which is largely constructed on docks and pilings, is crumbling?
Asbestos, old fuel tanks, contaminated soils and the rusting hulk of an old freighter are turning Namu into a contaminated site. It’s a ghost town without a caretaker that threatens to pollute the sea.
The current owner, David Milne of Namu Properties Ltd., has been trying to sell the site for years after a plan to develop a resort fell through. He denies there is a pollution threat. And, so far, government seems to agree with him. Neither the federal nor provincial government has listed Namu as a contaminated site.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans states it “has no information which would suggest a contravention of federal environmental legislation has occurred.”
And the B.C. Ministry of Environment says it “does not have any records” showing it is a contamination problem.
“If information comes to the attention of the Ministry of Environment that suggests that pollution may be occurring or that high-risk site contamination may be present, then the Ministry would follow up to ensure protection of human health and the environment,” a provincial government spokesman said in an e-mail.
So the two levels of governments that would have us believe they can protect the Central Coast should oil and gas developments go ahead, can’t see any problem at Namu – yet.
Meanwhile, anyone who visits the site can see how rapidly it is falling to pieces.
The local Heiltsuk First Nation wants to buy Namu (they have prior residency, with an archeological dig nearby showing continuous presence for nearly 10,000 years) but they don’t want to be saddled with what they fear is a multimillion-dollar cleanup bill.
And not surprisingly, they are wary about proposals to have new industrial sites, such as oil and gas plants, developed on the Central Coast when the old sites are still causing problems.
“Places like Namu, where previous owners have long-since absolved themselves of liabilities for the environmental consequences of their industrial actions, reminds us that corporations have very short memories, while communities and ecosystems live, forever, with the consequences,” said consultant Ian Gill, who has advised the Heiltsuk not to take ownership until somebody accepts responsibility for cleaning up the pollution.
In a recent e-mail, Harvey Humchitt Sr., a Hereditary Chief with the Heiltsuk, asked the provincial government for help in dealing with the Namu problem.
“The Heiltsuk are interested in taking back our Heiltsuk Village of Namu,” he wrote. “We have oral history, written history and archaeological records of continuous occupancy dating back 10,000 years. We would like the opportunity to meet with you to discuss Namu and see what we can do to correct the damage to our property. … It is appalling that the government of the province of B.C. can turn a blind eye to the environmental hazards caused by present and previous keepers of our land.”
A week later, he was still waiting for a reply.