Second Tug and Barge Casualty Near Bella Bella, B.C.

Whales and salvage crane near the partially submerged Nathan E. Stewart, right of center near shore (courtesy Heiltsuk Nation/Tavish Campbell)

Published Nov 8, 2016 4:00 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Sunday evening, the tug Columbia Layne was towing a sand and gravel barge in Graham Reach, near Bella Bella, British Columbia. In foul weather and heavy swells, the barge flipped and sank – the second tug and barge casualty in the area in a month. 

Jess Housty, councilor with the Heiltsuk tribe of Bella Bella, said in a statement that this was further evidence that the Northwest Passage needs better emergency response resources. 

"Two incidents in four weeks is too many for these coastal waters. The Coast Guard and other marine rescue services are already stretched thin. A Coast Guard vessel currently responding to the Nathan E. Stewart spill had to be deployed to deal with this second incident, and at this time we don't know if it will be able to return tomorrow," she said. "It is clear that [Transport Minister] Garneau and Prime Minister Trudeau's promised regulatory changes can't come soon enough."

On Monday, Garneau and Trudeau announced a $1.1 billion investment in response measures and research into how to clean up oil spills. The Coastal First Nations said in a statement that the improved response measures were a welcome step, so long as indigenous groups will be involved in implementation. 

Additionally, Garneau has promised to implement an oil tanker ban for British Columbia's North Coast by the end of the year – a central campaign promise of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Opponents of the ban, notably the International Chamber of Shipping, say that it may not be consistent with Canada’s obligations under UNCLOS, which protects the right of innocent passage for merchant shipping. 

The majority of petroleum tanker traffic in the region is actually product – bunker fuel and lighter fractions – and the proposed ban would only affect crude oil tanker traffic. 

The Heiltsuk tribe recently issued its own ban on "any and all vessels carrying fuel" within its territorial waters, the Globe and Mail reports. It was not immediately clear whether the tribe had enforcement abilities for the locally-implemented restriction. 

Near Bella Bella, response efforts for raising the Nathan E. Stewart continue. The high winds and waves that flipped the Columbia Layne’s tow have also hampered the Stewart salvage, and Monday winds were forecast at 55 knots. Small response vessels were on stand down for the day, tribal representatives said. 

The Stewart sank on October 13 with about 60,000 gallons of diesel on board, in addition to 500 gallons of lube oil and nearly 1,000 gallons of oily bilge water. The total amount of fuel recovered stands at 30,000 gallons, with an unknown portion of the rest released to the environment.

Photos provided by the tribe show a long slick extending from the tug and petroleum on the beaches nearby.

Resolve Marine is leading the Stewart salvage effort (below), in cooperation with the tribe and the Canadian Coast Guard. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is conducting an investigation into the cause of the accident.

All photos courtesy Heiltsuk Nation / Tavish Campbell; additional images available here.