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Fuel barge 'emergency' off B.C. coast renews concerns

Heiltsuk Nation confirms Alaska-bound U.S. tugboat 'in distress' after detaching from its fuel barge near Hecate Strait rocks, as VHF listeners overhear crew manage to drop anchors by nightfall.

The movements of the tugboat Jake Shearer — which Heiltsuk Tribal Council reported was in distress for several hours — on the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 26 close to rocks near Bella Bella, B.C.

Courtesy: Marine Traffic

The movements of the tugboat Jake Shearer — which Heiltsuk Tribal Council reported was in distress for several hours — on the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 26 close to rocks near Bella Bella, B.C.

An "emergency situation" involving an Alaska-bound tugboat and fuel barge traveling near British Columbia's remote Hecate Strait have renewed fears of a fuel spill on the West Coast.

According to a local listener on a VHF marine radio channel, operators of the vessel Jake Shearer — known as an articulated tug barge (ATB) — lost connection with its cargo Sunday afternoon, but the crew were eventually able to board the barge and drop anchor, according to the unconfirmed report.

"Listening on VHF … picking up really clear at Koeye," wrote Chris Johnson in a Facebook post around 6:30 p.m. Sunday. "Jake Shearer managed to get 2 crew members onto the barge and dropping anchor. "The anchor is holding for now they said."

In nearby Bella Bella, the Heiltsuk Tribal Council confirmed the incident and that it was in "close contact with Prince Rupert Coast Guard to monitor the situation."

"Preliminary reports suggest that the vessel has lost power and dropped the barge's anchor," stated Chief Coun. Marilyn Slett. "We understand that the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Gordon Reid has been tasked with an initial response and expects to reach the stricken vessel around 19:30 with the intention of attaching a tow line."

Courtesy Rick Voice/MarineTraffic.com

It's not the first such incident off B.C. waters in recent years, after a string of distress calls raised questions about Canada's claims to a "world class" protection of its West Coast. A Russian ship drifted powerless off Haida Gwai in October 2014, raising fears of a catastrophic oil spill.

And last year, a series of incidents near Bella Bella saw the ATB tugboat Nathan E. Stewart sink and leak oil for months, to the alarm and outrage of Heiltsuk First Nation, followed by another vessel in the same waters shortly after.

The online ship-tracking website Marine Traffic, which allows monitoring of all registered vessels's movements using GPS locations, showed the Jake Shearer traveling between seven and 11 knots between 6 p.m. Saturday until around 3 p.m. Sunday. Both match the vessel's average speed 9.2 knots, according to Marine Traffic's records.

Then, around 3 p.m., its speed dropped suddenly and oscillated rapidly for nearly four hours until it was reported as "underway" again after 7 p.m.

According to environmental activist Ingmar Lee, who tracked the latest incident via satellite GPS records online, it's just the latest wake-up call — after too many similar such close calls on the pristine waters of B.C.

Lee, who documented the Nathan E. Stewart movements — and predicted its sinking — on his Vimeo channel and Facebook account for several years, alleged that the Jake Shearer is in fact a replacement for the route of the sunken Nathan E. Stewart and was traveling the same route just over a year later, taking fuel to south-east Alaska.

The Canadian Coast Guard could not be immediately reached to confirm the incident or reports that two of its vessels were dispatched to the scene, including the Gordon Reid which responded to the previous years' high-profile marine incidents.

"This ATB is similar to the Nathan E. Stewart, the tug and barge​ which ran around in Seaforth Channel last fall, devastating marine resources ​when it spilled over 100,000 L of diesel," Slett stated. "That​ response was complicated by turbulent ​coastal weather conditions similar to those we are experiencing tonight … This incident highlights the desperate need for Indigenous-led response capacity on the central coast."

But according to Lee, the problem is with the Alaska-bound ATB's altogether, not simply local response capacity.

"If it goes aground and starts puking out 10,000 tonnes of oil, even if they had all their (response) equipment sitting ready, they could not do anything to clean up that mess," he argued.

Lee added that ATB fuel barges such as the Jake Shearer were barred by pilotage authorities from the slightly more protected passages — like where the Nathan E. Stewart sunk — but he said the Hecate Strait is simply too rough for barges.

"They call that Canada's Cape Horn, it's extremely treacherous waters," Lee said in a phone interview. "We've got the so-called north coast tanker ban, but it has a tanker-sized loophole in it: they have an exemption for up to 12,500 deadweight tonnes, that allows for the continuation of this Alaska-bound tanker traffic, including the barge being pushed by the Jake Shearer.

"This ATB traffic serving southeast Alaska should be made to travel offshore in a proper ocean-going tanker like all the other tankers have to do."

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