The Heiltsuk Nation of northern British Columbia has sharply criticized the response to the sinking of the ATB tug Nathan E. Stewart last October, accusing the Canadian Transportation Safety Board, the Coast Guard and the vessel operator of keeping the tribe in the dark about the tug's grounding and the spill that followed.
In a report published Thursday, the Heiltsuk contended that response officials either declined or did not to respond to 16 of the tribe's 18 requests for information. "This whole process was never set up to include First Nations communities so right from the start we were not so much as an afterthought," said Heiltsuk leader Marilyn Slett. "The Heiltsuk undertook this investigation in our territory as an act of defining who we are."
The tribe also alleged that spill responders were ill-prepared to handle the casualty. "There was no communication, no on-scene command, no clear direction on actions to be taken to try and mitigate the situation," said Heiltsuk hereditary chief Harvey Humchitt.
Slett called for a greater say for First Nations in regulating vessel traffic through the waters of the Inside Passage, particularly tankers and ATBs. In the report, the tribe noted that it has joined other coastal First Nations in opposition to oil and gas tankers transiting through tribal territories, and it reiterated its support for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's call for an oil tanker ban on the North Coast.
The Stewart went aground near Bella Bella, B.C. on October 13. Her barge was undamaged, but the tug gradually sank, releasing up to 29,000 gallons of fuel into the environment; salvage and spill control efforts were repeatedly delayed and disrupted by foul weather, and the vessel was not raised until November 14. Six months after the spill, the tribe's clam fisheries at Gale Creek remain closed due to pollution.
The TSB told CBC that it was still investigating the circumstances of the grounding, sinking and spill, and it would release its findings in due time. "If we uncover serious safety deficiencies during the course of our investigation, we will not wait until the final report to make them known," said spokesperson Julie Leroux.