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Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, seen here on April 5, 2019, said the partnership is 'something that we can do to make sure that we’re developing TMX safely, responsibly, but also in partnership with First Nations.'Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

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The Canadian Coast Guard has partnered with an Indigenous group on Vancouver Island to build a marine facility in Port Renfrew, B.C., aimed at improving its response in the event of an oil spill.

The memorandum of understanding with the Pacheedaht First Nation is in part a response to 156 conditions the National Energy Board said must be met before the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project can go ahead.

Several Indigenous groups have been battling the pipeline project in court, arguing the increased tanker traffic that would be the result of the expansion dramatically heightens the risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the sensitive waters off British Columbia’s coast.

Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, who is also responsible for the Canadian Coast Guard, said this partnership came about because the Pacheedaht First Nation identified a gap in the department’s response capacity on the west coast of Vancouver Island. She said the band put forward tailored measures that would not only have addressed the concerns, but also led the way to the new marine facility.

“It’s something that we can do to make sure that we’re developing TMX safely, responsibly, but also in partnership with First Nations. And that is something that we’re extremely committed to,” Ms. Jordan said in an interview.

The MOU provides for the construction of a multipurpose marine facility in Pacheedaht territory. Its primary purpose would be “to provide marine search and rescue and environmental response services, as well as strengthen marine safety and response capacity in the Juan de Fuca Strait.”

Ms. Jordan said there’s always continuing discussions with a number of different communities about involving them in spill-response measures, but she wouldn’t specify which other First Nations were involved in such talks. The Coast Guard said in a statement it has reached 13 agreements for a variety of measures, ranging from efforts to identify community needs to providing boats and other response equipment.

Chief Jeff Jones of the Pacheedaht First Nation said in a press release that the construction of the Marine Safety Centre in Pacheedaht territory has been a vision of the Nation for many years. He said it will help Pacheedaht exercise a greater role in protecting and managing 112 kilometres of marine coastline, vast territorial waters and abundant resources.

But Sven Biggs, the Canadian oil and gas program director at Stand.earth, an international environmental group, said while expanding oil-spill response capability and including Indigenous people are small steps in the right direction, they don’t deal with a fundamental problem.

“The kind of oil they are proposing to move with the Trans Mountain Pipeline is basically impossible to clean up in a marine environment,” he said in an interview.

He added that 85 per cent to 90 per cent of the oil from a tanker spill would sink to the bottom of the ocean or be dispersed before an oil-spill response team could get there.

In October, 2016, the tug Nathan E. Stewart ran aground near Bella Bella, B.C., after the crew member on watch at the time fell asleep. The tug eventually sank, spilling nearly 110,000 litres of fuel and oil into the traditional territory of the Heiltsuk Nation.

The incident prompted the community to explore ways to improve its own management of spill response. Last year, Heiltsuk Horizon, a partnership of the Heiltsuk First Nation and Horizon Maritime Services, was awarded a Government of Canada contract to provide marine services to enhance marine safety in Heiltsuk territory.

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