Is the Nathan E. Stewart diesel fuel spill response ‘world class’?

Nathan E. Stewart
Nathan E. Stewart tug and fuel barge. Photo: Canadian Coast Guard.

Nathan E. Stewart spill response appears to be timely, with enough equipment and trained responders, but Heiltsuk Nation critical

Has the Nathan E. Stewart spill response been “world class?” British Columbians have been asking this question over the past week as responders have struggled with stormy weather near Bella Bella, 330 kms south of Prince Rupert. The short answer is that it’s too early to tell.

Nathan E. Stewart
Photo: Canadian Coast Guard.

BC residents are understandably sensitive about marine fuel spills off the West Coast. They especially worry about spills from increased oil tanker traffic associated with the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline that terminates near Burnaby.

For evidence of their concern, recall the hysteria that accompanied the spill of 17 barrels (about 5 hot tubs full) of bunker fuel oil last April from the grain carrier M/V Marathassa into English Bay.

A review of that spill response noted a number of areas where the operation could be improved, such as the 1 hour and 49 minute delay alerting the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, the body responsible for actual spill clean up. And better communications between federal agencies, local governments, and citizens. Former assistant Coast Guard commissioner John Butler, who conducted the review, noted that closing the Kitsilano Coast Guard station – roundly criticized while the clean up was underway – had no impact on the results.

The lesson for the Nathan E. Stewart spill response is not to jump to conclusions. We don’t know enough yet to say if the efforts are world class or not.

Nathan E. Stewart
Photo: Canadian Coast Guard.

But here’s what we do know.

The tug and empty fuel barge DBL 55 crashed on Edge Reef, at the entrance to the Seaforth Channel, near Athlone Island, just after 1 a.m. Pacific time on Thursday, Oct. 13. The tug and barge are owned by the US company Kirby Offshore Marine and were transiting from Alaska with 59,924 US gallons (about 226,000 litres) of diesel fuel, according to the Coast Guard. The tug sank, while still connected to the barge, and began leaking diesel. The barge was eventually uncoupled and sent to Vancouver.

The initial response was Coast Guard search and rescue when the CG Station Bella Bella lifeboat arrived on scene at 2:19 am, according to the WCMRC timeline of events.

WCMRC was notified at 4:30 am that a spill response was required and arrived on scene with equipment from Shearwater at 10:30 am, six hours later. Federal regulations mandate a response in 10 hours or less. Responders placed a boom around the vessel to contain the diesel fuel and began “deploying protection strategies along the shoreline.”

By Thursday at 5:30 pm, additional vessels and crew arrived from Prince Rupert and Vancouver to lead the recovery and clean-up efforts. More equipment, vessels, and responders arrived over the next few days.

Nathan E. Stewart
Photo: Canadian Coast Guard.

Based upon what we know at this moment, the initial response appears timely and properly outfitted for the operation at hand.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been problems.

Bivalve shellfish (clams) fisheries in the Seaforth Channel and Gale Passage were closed by the Coast Guard. The Heiltsuk Nation, which depends upon the clam beds, is understandably upset. The Heiltsuk say that the diesel has contaminated all but two of the clam beds on its traditional territory

“The Heiltsuk are heartbroken and angry over this environmental disaster. We don’t know how many years or decades it will be before we are able to harvest in these waters again,” said Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett in a press release.

“The damage has been done, and the best we can work towards is mitigation.”

The impact will be considerable on the Heiltsuk, who consider the clam beds an integral part of their culture. We likely won’t know for months if the beds are irreparably damaged.

But the Heiltsuk will be compensated. Canadian marine legislation operates on the polluter pay principle. Kirby and its insurance company are required by law to pay for the damage, including clean up efforts.

If there is a shortfall for some reason, the Marine Liability Act maintains the Ship-Source Oil Pollution fund to “pay claims for oil pollution damage or anticipated damage at any place” in Canadian waters. The fund covers “petroleum, fuel oil, sludge, oil refuse and oil mixed with wastes,” according to the Transport Canada website.

If Kirby’s insurance and the Canadian fund prove inadequate, there is an additional international fund as well.

Understandably, the Heiltsuk have been critical of the clean up operation: “The response effort has been impacted by slow response time, a lack of boats, appropriate equipment, and personnel, and failed containment efforts by industry and the federal and provincial governments.”

The information available through the incident reports suggests this may not be the case. But the Coast Guard has not held a press briefing yet, unlike during the English Bay spill, when media teleconferences were an almost daily occurrence.

Speaking to the media is something the Coast Guard can and should do immediately. Otherwise, British Columbians will assume the worst. With more information, they wouldn’t have to.

Ed. note: Coast Guard spokesperson confirmed by email that containment boom broke late Friday night or early Saturday morning, but was repositioned by 4 pm Saturday. She also said that the response team does not yet have confirmed numbers for the amount of diesel fuel that leaked from the tug or how much has been recovered.

Nathan E. Stewart
Ph: 432-978-5096 Website:

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