The Canadian government passed the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act (Bill C-48), joining the Coastal First Nations in upholding a ban on oil tankers in the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii since 2010. The tanker ban legislation does not affect any of the current traffic carrying petroleum products through the region. This includes 10,000 deadweight tonne tug and barge shipments to Alaska transiting the B.C. Inside Passage, on average making one return trip every ten days with no stops in Canada. These shipments are approximately four times the volume of the largest domestic fuel deliveries to communities and industry on the central coast.

In recent months the Canadian government has announced several moves towards better marine management along the north and central coast of British Columbia, the region also called the Great Bear Sea because it borders and intertwines with the Great Bear Rainforest. Long-awaited investments in emergency and spill response capacity for coastal communities, marine protected areas network planning together with First Nations and the province, habitat restoration, and a legislated tanker ban hold the promise of lasting biodiversity protection and livelihood security for coastal peoples. But can any of these measures really protect the Great Bear Sea when large shipments of toxic petroleum products will continue to transit its waters?

In October, 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart, an articulated tug-barge (ATB) owned by Texas-based Kirby Marine Ltd., went aground near the Heiltsuk Nation community of Bella Bella on the central coast on its return trip from Alaska. Thankfully the barge was empty, but the tug itself spilled more than 100,000 litres of diesel and heavy oils in an area of extremely high commercial and cultural importance to the Heiltsuk, where over 25 species were actively harvested. Even though the spill was relatively small and occurred close to a population and marine traffic centre for the central coast, it proved nearly impossible to contain. The only recovery of petroleum product from the wreck was the result of divers being able to transfer fuels directly from the tanks of the sunken vessel. The tug remained on the reef for a month, leaking toxic fluids, surrounded by an expensive but ineffective circus of response vessels and clean-up crews. The toll that such an environmental disaster exacts on ecosystems – and indigenous communities in particular – cannot be measured or mitigated with mere dollars. Click here to support the Heiltsuk Nation’s lawsuit against the polluter and the Federal Government.

The tug and barge were among other Alaska-bound fuel barges that transit the confined and intricate Inside Passage under a special waiver, while all other tanker traffic must travel offshore from Haida Gwaii, outside the voluntary tanker exclusion zone (though that boundary is still not far enough away from shore to allow for rescue under bad conditions). Since the spill, these vessels are no longer permitted in several channels on the Inside Passage, and Kirby Corp. vessels must carry a Canadian pilot. However, they now travel the more exposed and dangerous passage through Hecate Strait (the waters between Haida Gwaii and the central and north coast archipelago). ATB vessels were originally designed for inland waterways; their seaworthiness in the 10 metre seas that often rage in shallow Hecate Strait is a major cause for concern.

On November 26, 2017, the Harvey Marine ATB Jake Shearer lost its barge loaded with 67,000 barrels of diesel and 11,000 barrels of gasoline in a storm only one mile off the Goose Island group, again in Heiltsuk territory. The barge was just one anchor away from landing up on one of the most spectacular sections of coastline in the region, and had to be towed away by another tug.

These vessels will continue to operate despite progress in other areas of marine and terrestrial protection, putting our coast at greater risk in order to preserve relations with the US. These shipments can travel more safely outside the tanker exclusion zone in offshore-capable vessels. Once they reach Alaska, products can be transferred to smaller vessels for resupply to Southeast Alaskan communities.

Even if the tanker ban threshold was lowered to allow shipments in the volumes currently delivered within B.C. (under 2,000 tonnes), the ban still only applies to traffic using B.C. ports – not traffic that transits through without stopping, and it only covers persistent oil products such as crude oil and bitumen. To many of us who watch these enormous barges passing by our small, remote communities, it is clear that more must be done to protect the Great Bear Sea. While coastal communities do need improved capacity to respond to the many small spills that occur from all kinds of vessels, the only real protection is precaution: minimize shipping of toxic products. There is no spill response technology or protocol in the world that can clean up more than a small fraction of product spilled in the ocean, except perhaps under ideal conditions.

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