With a storm threatening to disrupt operations, oil-spill response crews have been busy around the clock pumping fuel out of a tug that ran aground on B.C.'s central coast last week.
But Kelly Russ, chair of Coastal First Nations, said the spill response was too slow when the tug Nathan E. Stewart hit a reef while pushing a massive fuel barge north of Bella Bella. The barge was empty but the tug contained more than 60,000 gallons of fuel, an unknown amount of which has spread in a huge slick throughout the region in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.
"From a Coastal First Nations perspective, what we are seeing unfolding on the water is a crystallization of our worst fears, not only for the catastrophic event that's unfolded, but because the response, which we have been advocating for to be improved for at least a decade, is just not there," Mr. Russ said in an interview Tuesday.
The Canadian Coast Guard and the industry-funded Western Canada Marine Response Corporation both reacted promptly to the accident, but the response has come under fire because the nearest oil-spill crews were based in Prince Rupert, more than 20 hours away by boat.
The accident and response have highlighted concerns about what might happen if either or both of two proposed oil pipelines to the West Coast get approved.
"This is like a microcosm of a far greater catastrophe that could unfold with a pipeline," said Mr. Russ, who spent Monday at the accident site aboard the Coast Guard cutter Bartlett.
"I have to say the Coast Guard crew were absolutely exemplary … very professional. But what's going on, on the water, is not world class," he said, referring to a government promise that a world leading oil-spill response regime would be in place before any pipelines are approved.
The tug was carrying about 60,000 gallons of diesel and nearly 3,000 gallons of gear oil, hydraulic oil and dirty bilge. Mr. Russ said despite the deployment of containment booms, slicks are reaching shore, leading to the closure of clam beds the Heiltsuk First Nation relies on.
"The clam commercial harvest is being shut down. Food and ceremonial and social harvesting is being shut down. That's where the Heiltsuk get food for the winter … so it's having a huge impact on people's lives," he said. "For me, as a First Nations person, it is a catastrophic event. You are talking about the loss of the food basket for a nation."
Elysha Gordon, a resource-management biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said shellfish harvesting was halted because of concerns shellfish might be tainted with hydrocarbons.
"It will remain closed until obviously we have tests that prove otherwise," she said.
Jessie Housty, Heiltsuk on-scene commander for the spill response, said she was shocked in an overflight to see how far the diesel slick has spread.
"It's grim when you take in the full picture. … To see how huge that sheen is from the air is terrifying," she said.
And Ms. Housty said there are fears the situation could worsen.
A gale is expected to strike late Wednesday.
"There are concerns about the stability of the tug on the sea floor with the storm coming on. That's hard to think about but we could have issues with that."
A unified-command situation report, issued Tuesday by the various agencies working on the accident, states progress is being made on the cleanup and that fuel tanks on the sunken tug are being "hot tapped." Under that process divers drill holes in the hull and insert pipes to pump out fuel.
"Tapping and pumping operations continued through the night, crews reported 6,200 gallons transferred from the tug," the report stated.
Preparations were also being made to lift the vessel out of the water once it has been lightened by the removal of fuel.
Premier Christy Clark has been critical of the oil-spill response, saying the federal government has failed to establish an adequate oil-spill regime on the West Coast.