Cleanup and salvage efforts have been hampered by storms on the British Columbia coast, where a sunken tug continues to leak fuel 11 days after it ran aground near Bella Bella, in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Matt Woodruff, information officer with the industry-funded unified command group that is handling the operation, said fuel spill containment booms failed at one point, allowing slicks to escape from around the grounded tug, Nathan E. Stewart.
Mr. Woodruff said the booms were back in place late Saturday and crews resumed pumping fuel out of the tug, which is stranded on the reef it struck Oct. 13 while pushing a massive empty fuel barge.
"There was a storm that was particularly bad Friday night and during the night the containment booms, the booms we've tried to keep around the vessel … were damaged by the weather," he said.
The cleanup effort has been criticized by the Heiltsuk Nation for being too slow and for not having adequate equipment to contain the spill.
Mr. Woodruff said it's not clear yet what caused the booms to fail, but the severity of the storm clearly strained equipment.
"It happened in the dark and nobody saw it, so it's hard to say exactly what it was [that failed]," he said. "But … one of the challenges is that this is a reef area where you not only have swells, and you not only have waves, but you have swells and waves breaking right there in that area, and that creates a challenging environment for any boom to stand up to."
He said crews on Sunday had resumed pumping fuel out of the vessel. Once the tug's tanks are empty, the plan is to lift it aboard a barge.
"At this point I believe all the fuel tanks have been pumped and now they are doing the auxiliary tanks, things like lubricating oil, gear oil, hydraulic oil. Those are relatively small tanks," said Mr. Woodruff.
He said crews have also been "packing the interior of the vessel with absorbent material" to try to catch any oil that's loose inside.
Jessie Housty, an incident commander for the Heiltsuk Nation, said the weather has exposed just how vulnerable oil cleanup efforts are on the rugged West Coast, where storms are common in the fall and winter months.
"It's been a struggle with the weather. We've had a gale warning in effect and it's been upgraded to a storm warning now," she said Sunday. "We haven't been able to consistently have boats on the water. We've had to stand down our small vessels on a moment's notice. So it has been real stop-and-go for the past few days."
She said during storm events while cleanup work has to stop, spilled fuel continues to spread through the area.
"We've struggled a lot, especially with containment [of the fuel]," she said.
Ms. Housty said she's worried that despite the efforts of crews, more fuel may yet escape the vessel and worsen contamination of the area, which is important to the Heiltsuk for cultural and commercial harvests.
"We expect the worst at this point. We know the vast majority of our productive clam beds have been impacted by diesel. What we are assessing right now is how bad the exposure is and trying to learn a little more about how long it might take to cycle [the pollution] out of the system," she said.
"But you know it's not just clams. There are more than 25 marine species that we rely on that are in that area. Just this morning, we were looking at dive footage that was captured yesterday of juvenile herring right in the vicinity of the tug, of sea urchins and abalone right there. … It has really brought home for me how much is at stake."
Ms. Housty said the accident has reinforced for the Heiltsuk Nation their objections to any increase in oil-tanker traffic on the West Coast. Two oil pipelines are currently proposed.
The federal government is expected to make a decision in December about Kinder Morgan's proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, but Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is in limbo because of a court ruling that the federal government failed to adequately consult First Nations.