Saturday, May 18, 2024

Vancouver Island First Nations aid in massive diesel fuel spill near Campbell River


Three First Nations played a key role in an incident which occurred on Thursday, April 20th, in which a barge carrying a fuel truck with 17,000 litres of diesel sank into the ocean while traversing the Chancellor Channel near Campbell River. 

The Wei Wai Kum, We Wai Kai and K’ómoks First Nations act as guardians of this region and aided the Coast Guard, the company responsible for the barge carrying the truck and the provincial government in the response from beginning to end. 

“We were ready,” said Wei Wai Kum representative Tony Roberts Jr. 

“Along with the other Nations we immediately stepped into the Unified Command Centre that was established, along with the Coast Guard, Marine Link Transportation (MLT), who were operating the barge and the provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.”

The freight being carried by the barge was intended to be delivered from Menzies Bay to a logging operation on Hardwicke Island which is just off Sayward. 

The barge came upon high winds in the Chancellor Channel which runs between Hardwicke Island and West Thurlow Island. 

WTC say they contacted authorities immediately who then informed the nearby First Nations who are part of the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network which takes ancestral responsibility for the land, waters and wildlife in the region. 

The next day, on April 21st, the First Nations Guardians, Coast Guard and Western Canadian Marine Response Corp. (WCMRC) got to the area where the barge and fuel truck sank, and located the fuel tank using a remote operated vehicle. 

(DFO Marine Mammal Unit)

“Unified Command met multiple times a day to discuss the priorities for retrieving the truck as soon as safe and practical, with the least possible release of diesel fuel into the marine environment and to implement strategies for the protection of environmentally and culturally sensitive areas,” said K’ómoks First Nation Chief Ken Price.

“All three First Nations had deployed our Guardians immediately to work with on-water responders on site, to help with the operations and to ensure the First Nations leadership were fully informed about the status of the operations so we could make our decisions about the appropriate next steps to take.”

Divers consistently dove down 35 metres to monitor the fuel truck and patch up leaks in the diesel tank it carried, while a plan to get the truck out of the water was made. 

At around 4 p.m. on Friday, April 28th, the fuel truck was successfully removed from the ocean floor and brought to the surface. 

All its fuel was immediately transferred out of the truck and it was determined that around 2,500 litres of diesel had leaked from the tank into the waters. This makes up approximately 15% of the total volume it carried. 

“They told us openly they could not have done this without us,” says We Wai Kai Guardian Manager Shane Pollard. 

“It was good to hear that appreciation for our work, and acknowledgement of how important our participation in response and recovery activities are.”

Following the fuel spill, cleanup and recovery teams have been deployed to the area. 

On Wednesday, May 3rd, the First Nations Guardians are returning to the site to identify environmentally and culturally sensitive areas that may have been impacted by the spill, such as streams used by salmon.

The response to this incident was the first “real life” implementation of this type of partnership between the First Nations Guardians, Coast Guard and the province. The partners in the response to this will be taking further steps to improve protocol and take a close look at what worked well, and what could be improved when the next spill like this happens. 

“These types of accidents aren’t uncommon,” observes Wei Wai Kum’s elected Chief Councillor Christopher Roberts. “We see a lot of marine-related pollution incidents and marine emergencies in Wei Wai Kum territory.”

“Marine activity is only going to increase, I think. That’s why we need continued and sustained investment from partners like the Coast Guard, and investment in our First Nations Guardians to do their work, so that we can all get better and better at being able to protect our important marine and cultural areas together. What happened here is a clear demonstration of that.”

The trio of First Nations Guardians are thankful to be included in this response and are looking forward to further inclusion in matters such as these that impact land their ancestors acted as stewards for centuries. 

“I’m immensely proud of all of our Guardians,” said Chief Price. 

“Not only K’ómoks but Guardians of the Wei Wai Kum, We Wai Kai and Tlowitsis Nations all worked together rapidly and effectively to assist in a situation that needed fast, experienced action to try and minimize environmental damage to our territories.”

Curtis Blandy

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