B.C. tribe sues U.S. barge company over 2016 spill

Booms are deployed around the grounded Nathan E. Stewart and fuel barge on Oct. 28, 2016. (Photo by Tavish Campbell, courtesy of Heiltsuk Nation)

A First Nations tribe in British Columbia is suing the operator of a U.S. fuel barge that spilled thousands of gallons of diesel near the tribe’s reserve nearly two years ago.

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Heiltsuk First Nations member Kelly Brown got close enough in his boat to make out the name of a grounded tug in the Inside Passage.

“Nathan E. Stewart has sunk,” Brown says in the video. “There’s fuel just flowing out of the boat – you can see it from here.”

Brown shared video of the encounter in the Seaforth Channel that was re-posted by the Vancouver Sun.

Fortunately the tug’s accompanying fuel barge had already delivered its load in Ketchikan and was nearly empty.

Still, around 26,000 gallons of diesel and other oils from the southbound tug Nathan E. Stewart spilled that morning. An NTSB investigation later found the crew member standing watch had fallen asleep.

The First Nations tribe says its subsistence clam beds were contaminated and haven’t been harvested since.

Nearly two years later to the day, the Heiltsuk Tribal Council filed a lawsuit against the B.C. and Canadian governments.

The suit also names crew members and their employer: Kirby Offshore Marine which regularly ships fuel from Washington State to ports in Southeast Alaska.

“Our law has been violated and the legal action we are taking in the B.C. Supreme Court today is our attempt, our bid to hold industry and government accountable for this negligence,” Heiltsuk First Nations hereditary chief Frank Brown told reporters in Vancouver on Wednesday.

The Kirby Corporation released a short statement admitting no wrongdoing.

Kirby Offshore Marine, LLC has been made aware of a claim filed by the Heiltsuk Nation with respect to the Nathan E. Stewart incident that occurred in British Columbia waters some two years ago,” the Houston, Texas-based company wrote in a statement to CoastAlaska. “Our legal counsel will be reviewing the claim and will take the appropriate actions to defend our interests in court. We will not make any further statement in the media at this time, as we do not want to take any action that could prejudice any judicial or other proceedings arising from this incident.”

B.C.’s environment ministry released a statement of its own.

“We are committed to work with the federal government and to engage with Heiltsuk as appropriate for a federally-led initiative,” the B.C. government agency wrote. “As the matter is before the courts, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

The Oct. 13, 2016 spill ignited concerns about Canada’s spill response capabilities in the Inside Passage.

The tribe claims it took the first Canadian Coast Guard vessel 20 hours to arrive from when the tug ran aground.

The Heiltsuk First Nations has been pushing for spill-response capacity of its own.

Those efforts were redoubled last November when an Alaska-bound fuel barge ran into trouble near Bella Bella, B.C.

The northbound Jake Shearer broke free from the fuel barge it was towing. It was fully loaded with about 3.7 million gallons of various petroleum fuels, but its crew was able to drop anchor before it hit the rocks.

Community members in Bella Bella have been pushing for more regulations on Alaska-bound fuel barges.

“Our community has definitely raised a lot of concern about the articulated barges,” Marilyn Slett, chief councilor of the tribe told CoastAlaska. “Certainly we’re living through the experience with the Nathan E. Stewart and the near-miss with the Jake Shearer.”

The Canadian government has proposed exclusionary zones for oil tankers in the Inside Passage.

But the articulated fuel barges are below the tonnage threshold and would be exempt from the rule.

The lawsuit seeks damages for the loss of clam beds the tribe says remain contaminated since the spill.

It also accuses Kirby Corporation recklessness by having only one crew member available to stand watch at night.

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

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