As diesel fuel from a sunken tug in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest continues to seep through the containment efforts of first responders, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) has launched a formal investigation into the initial spill that caused the damage.
Diesel fuel has been discovered in at least three coves of the Seaforth Channel, where a 10-tonne tug and barge unit owned by the Texas-based Kirby Corp. ran aground in the early hours of Thurs. Oct. 13. Members of Kirby, the RCMP, the Canadian Coast Guard, the nearby Heiltsuk First Nation and other organizations have been on site, trying to scoop more than 200,000 litres of the toxic substance out of one of Canada's most pristine marine and terrestrial ecosystems.
Shoreline cleanup crews have now been deployed to recover diesel contaminating tidal beaches in Heiltsuk waters, and will be raking up to 20 centimetres below the surface to flush the fuel out with water. According to the latest incident report from Kirby, divers also discovered two damaged tanks inside the tug and released trapped fuel. All tanks aboard the tug have now been pumped off to a separate vessel
Diesel spreads after major boom failure
While skimming vessels continue to work around the spill site, aerial surveillance continues to find oil escaping beyond the booming equipment. Stormy weather delayed clean up efforts for the fourth day in a row over the weekend, and members of the Heiltsuk First Nation are increasingly worried about diesel spreading to Gale Passage, a "highly sensitive ecological and marine resource area."
“In the first week of the spill, we had the largest tides of the month at 17.4 feet,” said Heiltsuk Aquatics Manager Mike Reid in a press release. “Even without bad weather, the speed of tides rushing through the spill site are likely to flush diesel into the area.”
After a major boom failure last Friday, first responders started circling containment equipment within Gale Passage, and on Monday, reported the equipment remains in place. More than half of the Heiltsuk's harvesting clam beds have already been lost to pollution however, and the First Nation is worried they could lose sea cucumbers, salmon, herring, kelp, urchins and other valuable marine species that live in the region as well.
Wildlife spotted near spill site
"Schools of juvenile herring were filmed at the dirty tug and an orca was spotted in Seaforth Channel yesterday," according to a statement from the Indigenous community in Bella Bella on Monday. "Heiltsuk are concerned about the additional impacts of heavy oil from the tug on marine life in the area."
According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, diesel is one of the "most acutely toxic oil types," and while small spills in open water are often diluted so quickly that fish deaths are not reported, marine life — including invertebrates and seaweed — that comes into direct contact with the substance may be killed. Oiled birds have already been seen in Heiltsuk territory, said Chief Marilyn Slett, but none could be captured or rehabilitated.
“From the air, it looks like the spill is completely free in the water,” said Slett over the weekend. “Containment has been Heiltsuk priority from day one. Why weren’t seaworthy booms put in place immediately after the spill?”
Gitga'at First Nation demands tanker ban in solidarity
Members of the Gitga'at First Nation, which resides further north in the Great Bear Rainforest, joined Slett and her community in calling for immediate passage of a crude oil tanker ban on B.C.'s northern coast in order to prevent more severe tanker spills from occurring in the future. The moratorium was one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's election promises, and falls under the mandate of Transport Canada.
“On behalf of the Gitga’at First Nation, we express our deep sympathy and steadfast support for our brothers and sisters in the Heiltsuk First Nation, who are dealing with a nightmare diesel spill and unfolding environmental disaster," said a statement from the Council of the Gitga'at First Nation.
“This incident is a powerful reminder that regardless of response time, there is no technology that can adequately cleanup a spill, and we expect the federal government to announce the immediate implementation of a North Coast Crude oil tanker ban, as promised by our Prime Minister."
Cleanup efforts in the Seaforth Channel continue, and Kirby hopes that as soon as the tug's fuel tankers are emptied, the vessel can be lifted by crane onto a barge that will take it out of the Great Bear Rainforest. The Heiltsuk First Nation has already indicated that it intends to seek compensation from the Texas-based company, and could very well end up suing both Kirby and the Canadian government.