A B.C. First Nation is suing the provincial and federal governments, as well as the owners of the Nathan E Stewart tug that spilled 110,000 litres of diesel along the northern B.C. coast.
The Heiltsuk Nation say that the October 2016 spill in the Seaforth Channel along the central coast near Bella Bella, irreparably damaged their marine harvesting areas.
Nearly two years to the day of the Oct. 13 spill, the Nation filed a civil claim in B.C Supreme Court asking for financial compensation and a change to how petroleum products are shipped along B.C.’s coast.
Speaking at a press conference in Vancouver Wednesday, Heiltsuk hereditary chief Frank Brown said that the spill response was “chaotic and inefficient” and equated it to further “cultural genocide.”
The civil claim targets Kirby Offshore Marine, the owners of the tug, for their alleged “inadequate practices” that led to the tug hitting the rocks, spilling diesel and lubricants into the water.
It also personally targets Sean Connor, the master of the vessel, and Henry Hendrix, the second mate who fell asleep before the Nathan E Stewart was grounded.
The Nathan E. Stewart ran aground on a reef in the Seaforth Channel near Bella Bella, spilling approximately 110,000 litres of diesel and another 2,000 litre of lubricants into the water and causing an estimated $12 million in damage to the tug and the barge it was towing.
A Safety Transportation Board investigation into the spill found that neither Transport Canada regulations, nor the boat operators, had done enough to handle the “inevitable” fatigue brought on by the crew’s schedule.
Speaking after the press conference, Chief Marilyn Slett said that her nation is still suffering the after-effects of the spill.
“There’s been a clam fishery that’s been shut down for two years. This is our winter economy, it brings our community through the winter,” said Slett.
“There’s the ecosystem in the incident area, the wildlife… it’s not the same.”
She feels like her nation was left out of the spill response and the environmental assessment that followed.
“It was driven by the polluter, by Kirby. Canada and B.C. did not feel like they had the responsibility to consult with us,” Slett said.
“The process is inadequate and does not include Indigenous communities.”
She said that the Heiltsuk were launching their suit not just to secure “millions” in financial compensation for themselves but to ensure that all First Nations across the province are better prepared.
“Our communities need to be trained, we need to have the infrastructure in our communities, the supplies… and we also need to have some management control over what that looks like,” said Slett.
“The incident command structure that was put into place does not include First Nations.”
Currently, the promised extra $1.5 million in spill response funding for B.C.’s coast is on hold, following the federal appeals court’s quashing of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
But Slett said that regardless of what happens with Trans Mountain, the need for an improved and more nuanced spill response is there now.
“Certainly, with the amount of traffic that is traversing through our territory right now… it needs to be improved, regardless of adding more traffic to it,” said Slett.
In a 196-page report released last year, the Heiltsuk proposed an Indigenous Marine Response Centre to protect the central coast from a similar spill.
In a statement, the environment ministry said that they were working with the federal government and would “engage with Heiltsuk as appropriate for a federally-led initiative.”
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