Alaska-bound fuel barge runs into trouble in Canadian waters

A map of the Alaskan portion of the Inside Passage. (NPS image via Wikimedia Commons)

An apparent close call involving an Alaska-bound fuel barge in Canadian waters has renewed concern about petroleum shipments through the Inside Passage.

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Provincial authorities in British Columbia reported a barge laden with at least a million gallons of diesel and gasoline detached Sunday from its tug in stormy seas.

Canadian Navy Lt. Melissa Kai of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Center in Victoria said the next morning that a second tug had regained control of the 430-foot barge.

“The line is holding and the tug is underway,” Kai said Monday morning. “At this point they’ve managed to lift her anchor and have her secured which is great news.”

Officials did not report any damage or spill from the vessel, identified as the Zidell Marine 277.

It wasn’t immediately clear Monday afternoon which Alaska port it was bound for or where it’s being towed.

Messages left with the company weren’t immediately returned and rescue officials wouldn’t say.

“That’s for the company and Transport Canada to decide,” Kai said, “based on weather conditions, and obviously the ultimate goal is to bring her into port at the safest possible location.”

But the incident comes little more than a year after a similar mishap involving a fuel barge servicing Alaska ports.

“The inner passage has some spots that are very tricky. They have currents of up to 12 to 14 knots,” Delores Broten said. She’s editor of the Watershed Sentinel, a Vancouver Island-based environmental magazine. “In the last three years we’ve had two close calls. One was actually a fuel spill, but it was an empty vessel so the impact although it was bad locally, it wasn’t as bad as it could be. And this most recent one, it sounds like we’ve averted disaster but I don’t think they’re quite safely in port yet.”

That earlier incident involved the tug Nathan E. Stewart, which ran aground 13 months ago while towing a mostly empty fuel barge from Ketchikan. It spilled at least 26,000 gallons of diesel near Bella Bella, a community of about 1,600.

“To this day we still have clam beaches closed,” Marilyn Slett, chief councilor of the Heiltsuk First Nation tribe in Bella Bella, said. “That has affected the local economy for clam harvesting and we’re still carrying our own environmental testing. It’s such a concern for us.”

Slett says, at the very least, her community should be equipped with its own spill response gear.

“Right now there is no official role for us,” Slett said. “But we are the first responders, we are the first people out there when incidents occur. We live here, it’s our back yard.”

The Canadian portion of the the Inside Passage is a voluntary exclusion area for larger oil tankers. But the route is popular with smaller U.S. and Canadian-flagged fuel barges that are routinely granted an exemption from having a Canadian pilot on board to guide them.

There’s legislation pending in Ottawa that could toughen shipping restrictions in the area. But under the current draft, fuel barges such as those that serve Alaska ports, would remain exempt.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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