Opinion: First Nations must play key role in spill response

Vancouver Sun, October 30, 2016

The devastating diesel spill in Heiltsuk Nation territory is a clear example of why First Nations must play a key role in emergency spill response planning.

It is established that the Kirby Corp.’s Nathan E. Stewart tug was traveling without a Canadian marine pilot when it went aground, tearing open its hull in Heiltsuk waters. The first Heiltsuk at the site, an hour boat ride away, was 75-year-old Melvin Innes. Arriving in the early hours of Oct. 13, Innes, who knows the area well, could see the damage was already done and that by the time responders arrived, it would be too late.

As a result of the sinking, thousands of gallons of spilled diesel have contaminated sensitive Heiltsuk seafood-harvesting areas, less than three weeks before an annual clam fishery was scheduled to open. In the long-term, we fully believe there will be negative impacts to this area that is rich in at least 25 marine species. In the short term, the cultural and economic impacts on the Heiltsuk people are immediate and intimate.

It’s clear what the best emergency spill plan for B.C.’s north coast should be. Canada must deliver on its promise to ban oil tanker traffic and give First Nations a full decision-making role in management decisions about shipping traffic in our territorial waters.

Coastal First Nations have called for a ban on oil tankers since 2000. We know that spills are inevitable and a threat to our cultures, economies and ecosystems. Yet our calls have gone unheeded and on Oct. 13 our worst fears were realized. There is no doubt that a crude oil tanker spill would have an even greater impact than the tragic consequences of the spill still unfolding in Heiltsuk waters.

To avoid another spill disaster on the North Coast, we recommend a thorough review of the regulations that allowed the Nathan E. Stewart to operate without a Canadian marine pilot. We need disclosure of why the tug grounded in an open passage and calm waters. And we must immediately implement corrective measures to protect coastal communities from a similar tragedy.

We also call on Canada to partner with First Nations to develop a truly world-class spill response to deal with the current shipping traffic travelling through our waters. Canada must act to fully equip First Nations to respond to potential disasters. Had this been the case with the Heiltsuk, recovery operations would have been underway in an hour. Instead, it took a crew 22 hours to arrive from Prince Rupert.

The risks posed by fuel spills to the cultural and economic well-being of the Heiltsuk and other coastal First Nations are unacceptable. If reconciliation is to have real meaning, all First Nations must be assured that our way of life which has been in place for millennia will be there for future generations.

Kelly Russ is board chair for Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative; Billy Yovanovich is chief councillor, Skidegate Council, Haida Nation; Richard Smith is a council member with Masset-Old Masset Village Council, Haida Nation.