In 2012 the B.C. government set out five conditions that must be met before the province supports two proposed pipelines that would greatly increase tanker traffic on the West Coast.
No.2 on that list is the establishment of a "world-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery system."
Last week the lack of progress on that point was underlined in dramatic fashion when U.S.-registered tug Nathan E. Stewart ran aground while pushing a huge fuel barge in a narrow passage just north of Bella Bella.
Fortunately for the Great Bear Rainforest and the Heiltsuk people who live there, barge DBL 55 was empty. But an incident report filed in 2011 by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation gives a sense of how bad the accident could have been, had the 91-metre fuel barge been loaded.
On Dec. 21 that year, the same tug and barge combination went adrift after an engine failed near Cape Fairweather, in the Gulf of Alaska.
"The tug has 45,000 gallons of diesel and 500 gallons of lube oil on board. The cargo on board the fuel barge is reported to be 2.2 million gallons of diesel fuel, 1,028 gallons of aviation fuel and 700 gallons of other petroleum products," states the report.
In that incident, the tug and barge were brought to safety under tow and no fuel was spilled.
In the Bella Bella accident, the barge grounded on a reef but was refloated. The tug sank, bleeding diesel and other petroleum products. Long before a spill-response team arrived from Prince Rupert, a fuel slick surged through Gale Pass into an area long treasured by the Heiltsuk for its rich clam beds.
Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett said while the tug's crew, Coast Guard responders and local volunteers did try to contain the fuel, they weren't adequately equipped to do so.
A full response team was dispatched from Prince Rupert, but that was more than 20 hours away by water. The day after the accident she was still waiting for the spill to be contained.
"It's been a frustrating process. I mean there are a lot of people running around, going in and out [of meetings], but when we talk to our people out there – it's slow," she said of the cleanup effort. "You know when it comes down to that world-class, oil-spill regime … it didn't happen and it's been a frustrating process today trying to get it mobilized."
Ms. Slett said it will be some time before they know how badly the clam beaches have been polluted. But judging by the smell of the Heiltsuk volunteers who came back from the site, she is deeply worried. The stink of diesel was heavy on their clothes.
It's not like people didn't see this coming.
Ingmar Lee, an environmental activist who lives on Denny Island near Bella Bella, has been warning for years about the huge fuel barges going up and down B.C.'s coast.
In particular he has voiced concern about the Nathan E. Stewart, which he first encountered a few years ago as it pushed DBL 55 through Fitzhugh Sound, south of Bella Bella. He was shocked by the size of the fuel barge and thought it risky for such a large vessel to be navigating in the narrow Inside Passage.
"One little mistake, one power failure or whatever and within minutes you are on the rocks," he said.
The crew of the Nathan E. Stewart learned that the hard way last Thursday.
The spill response that followed shows B.C. is a long way from being able to deal with the increase in tanker traffic that would come if either of Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, or Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion go ahead.
Responding to the tug and barge accident, Premier Christy Clark had this to say: "I have argued for five years now, since I became Premier, that the spill response we have on our coast is totally inadequate, not just for what some people argue should come if pipelines come from Alberta, it's not adequate for what we have now going up and down our coast … and I think the critics who came out today are right about that. I agree with them."
A federal decision on the proposed $6.8-billion Trans Mountain pipeline is expected by federal cabinet in December.
Last June, the Federal Court of Appeal overturned federal approval of the $7.9-billion Northern Gateway project after ruling Ottawa failed to adequately consult First Nations. The company remains committed to the project, however, and it is still in play.
If the pipelines are built, there will be more tankers on the coast. Governments have known that for years, but have not yet put in place the "world-class" oil response regime B.C. first called for in 2012.
No wonder people on the coast are worried.