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Bella Bella diesel spill containment 'far from world class': Heiltsuk Chief

First Nation 'shocked' as stormy weather conditions, 50-knot winds hamper response to estimated 220,000-litre fuel spill from sunken tugboat.

Oil spill containment booms attempt to surround diesel fuel from a tug boat that sunk last week while powering a tanker barge. Clean-up efforts were set back this weekend by rough conditions.

Courtesy Heiltsuk Tribal Council / Facebook

Oil spill containment booms attempt to surround diesel fuel from a tug boat that sunk last week while powering a tanker barge. Clean-up efforts were set back this weekend by rough conditions.

Eleven days after the sinking of the tugboat Nathan E. Stewart — spilling an unknown amount of its stored 220,000 litres of diesel fuel into sensitive waters 20 km west of Bella Bella, B.C. — nearby Heiltsuk Nation decried that the small community is being forced to “bear the brunt of this environmental disaster” on its territories.

Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett told Metro her community is in “shock” after the boat’s sinking on Oct. 13, and then this weekend watching booms meant to contain the spill break apart due to harsh weather conditions.

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The booms were finally repaired on Sunday, but nonetheless the spill continues to wreak havoc on the local waters — a popular spot for clam harvesting. That important economic lifeline for Bella Bella was set to start in coming weeks.

Now, Slett said in a phone interview, that won’t be possible.

“There are 50 families which rely on the harvesting to get them through the winter, what are they going to do now?” she said. “(B.C. Premier) Christy Clark just recently had mentioned incidents like the one near Bella Bella are exactly why the government have put the five conditions around the energy projects that they’re looking at.

“This ‘world-class marine response’ did not happen here in Bella Bella.”

In the wake of the latest marine safety incident on the coast, the Heiltsuk and the other First Nation members of Coastal First Nations renewed their call to outright ban oil tankers on B.C.’s coast. They said the tugboat sinking is just the latest wake-up call in recent years.

“Our community is a marine community,” Slett explained. “We rely on the ocean for our sustenance.

“This area that was hit is a 13,000-year-old village site. We’re connected to it by history, connected to it by our culture and through our way of life. It’s really hit us every way that it can.”

As clean-up attempts continue, a storm warning remains in effect for the area — now with added warning of gale-force winds.

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