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Confusion delayed response to sinking B.C. tugboat: report

The sinking of a tug and the subsequent diesel spill on British Columbia's central coast is prompting a rethink to emergency response that could allow those closest to the disaster to take the lead, says the federal indigenous affairs minister. The tug boat Nathan E. Stewart is seen in the waters of the Seaforth Channel near Bella Bella, B.C., in an October 23, 2016, handout photo.


The response to the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat near Bella Bella, B.C., last fall was hampered by ineffective oil-containment booms, lack of training provided to local first responders and mass confusion over who was in charge, according to a newly released report by the Heiltsuk Nation chronicling the first 48 hours of the marine disaster.

In the resulting chaos, more than 107,000 litres of diesel fuel and 2,200 litres of engine oil spilled into the waters of the Seaforth Channel, putting at risk an important food harvesting and cultural area for the Heiltsuk.

It took 32 days to remove the stricken vessel from the reef.

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Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett said the First Nations community undertook its own investigation because the federal government has not been forthright with information. A separate investigation by the Transportation Safety Board is ongoing.

The Heiltsuk say Transport Canada, the Transportation Safety Board and Kirby Corporation – whose subsidiary Kirby Offshore Marine LLC owns the U.S.-based Nathan E. Stewart (NES) – did not provide information or documentation that it requested.

The bulk of information in the report, to be released publicly on Thursday, was provided by Heiltsuk first responders, the Canadian Coast Guard and the Unified Command, a multijurisdictional committee comprising first responders, local agencies and industry.

Chief Slett said in an interview that the investigation "confirms what we were observing during the spill of the ineffectiveness of Canada's response, the confusion at the incident site. "Those first two days were critical for mitigation." The next step will be to send the report to a Heiltsuk adjudication committee to determine if their traditional laws have been violated, Chief Slett said.

The tugboat, pushing an empty petroleum barge, missed a course change at the mouth of Gale Creek in the Seaforth Channel on Oct. 13 and ran aground at Edge Reef on Athlone Island just after 1 a.m.

At 2:20 a.m., the Cape St. James, a Coast Guard vessel, arrived and offered to pull the vessel off the rocks or evacuate the tugboat crew. The NES crew declined the offer "as there was no danger of sinking, the vessel was not taking on water at the time and no lives were in danger," according to the report – an account also heard in audio recordings obtained by The Globe and Mail.

A few hours later, the NES reported that tanks had breached and were leaking diesel. As more Heiltsuk and Coast Guard vessels headed toward the scene, the NES began pumping water from the vessel but could not keep up with the inflow of the water.

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Shortly before the NES sank, Heiltsuk first responders "requested that boom be placed around Gale Creek and that the NES be pulled off the reef," according to the report. Neither request was met.

The report later references booms that broke before they were even deployed, "due to anchors not being strong enough to hold in the current," and booms that were ineffective in the water's strong currents.

The Heiltsuk first responders also reported much confusion over who had authority throughout the first two days of the response.

Reached for comment, the TSB's director of communications, Rox-Anne D'Aoust, said senior investigators met with Chief Slett and the Heiltsuk Tribal Council to explain the safety agency's investigation process and the legislation around it. However, the TSB is limited in the information it can share during the course of an investigation.

"The TSB is interested in obtaining the perspective of the Heiltsuk first responders, as well as the views of their community," Ms. D'Aoust wrote in an e-mail. "We will review their report closely and any other information they wish to share as part of our on-going investigation."

No release date has been set.

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"If we uncover serious safety deficiencies during the course of our investigation, we will not wait until the final report to make them known," Ms. D'Aoust wrote. "We will inform industry and the regulator as quickly as possible."

Transport Canada did not respond to a request for comment.

Nearly six months after the accident, the community's lucrative clam fishery remains closed, Chief Slett said.

"The clam fishery did not happen due to the diesel contamination," she said. "The kelp canopies have been affected. This whole area has been so rich with different species, it has been such a rich ecosystem, the impact has been devastating."

With a report from Justine Hunter

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Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More


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