A day after it went adrift, a fuel-loaded barge was under a tug's control near Bella Bella on Monday, and a B.C. native leader got an unexpected chance to take concerns over such situations directly to the federal Transport Minister.
Marilyn Slett, chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council, which raised alarms in October, 2016, when a vessel leaked diesel fuel in waters that are part of their traditional territory, happened to be in Ottawa on Monday for a meeting on reconciliation as the fate of the Zidell Marine 277 played out in the same area.
"It's a bit of déjà vu about what happened 13 months ago," Ms. Slett said. "What we have maintained is that the response efforts, current oil-spill response on the Central Coast, is inadequate, slow and unsafe. It was last year and it continues to be today."
She said she met with Transport Minister Marc Garneau and pressed Ottawa to establish a marine response centre led by First Nations on B.C.'s Central Coast. During the 15-minute meeting, Ms. Slett said the minister, who visited Bella Bella after the 2016 incident, which involved a tugboat called the Nathan E. Stewart, seemed "sincere" in hearing out her concerns.
"He mentioned that they have been working within their bureaucracy to make these discussions happen and bring out the resources that are required, that have been talked about when they brought out the oceans protection strategy last year," she said.
On Sunday, the Zidell Marine 277, a U.S. vessel carrying 3.5 million litres of diesel fuel and 468,000 litres of gasoline, broke free of the tug that was pushing it about 1,150 kilometres northwest of Vancouver through Queen Charlotte Sound in rough weather.
Katelyn Moores of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria said on Monday that a commercial tug called the Gulf Cajun that had offered assistance now has it under tow.
The tug was moving the 128-metre barge towards Milbanke Sound, which offers sheltered areas, Ms. Moores said. Transport Canada was in talks with the owners of the barge to determine where it should end up, she added.
Last year, Ottawa announced a $1.5-billion federal Oceans Protection Plan that was intended to improve marine safety for Canada. As part of that, the Heiltsuk asked to be empowered and equipped to deal with spills that affect their traditional territory and its fishery. But Ms. Slett said the necessary response vessels and infrastructure are not in place.
Marc Roy, communications director for Mr. Garneau, said the minister is intent on continued efforts to develop a response ability for such situations in which First Nations will be partners. "It's an ongoing process as we roll out the comprehensive OPP," he said in an interview.
Ms. Slett said she has a meeting scheduled for Tuesday with Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown and Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.
In Victoria, provincial Environment Minister George Heyman said the government was thinking of the Heiltsuk First Nation and others affected by this situation.
"Right now, our focus is entirely on the threat to the Central Coast, to the traditional economy of the Heiltsuk Nation," the minister told reporters. "Our job is to ensure this barge is safely towed to safe harbour, and there is no spill and the Heiltsuk economy is protected."
Mr. Heyman declined to address whether this week's situation with the barge would become part of the debate over plans to expand the Trans-Mountain pipeline from Alberta, which the NDP government opposes. "There will be a day to have that discussion," he said.