BC VIEWS: Petroleum panic a barge too far

Ban on tankers extended to fuel barges would create new ghost towns along the remote B.C. coast

The village of Bella Bella on B.C.’s remote Central Coast has had more than its share of attention in 2016.

In January, Premier Christy Clark joined forest industry and environmental representatives in Bella Bella to sign the final preservation and resource management agreement for the Great Bear Rainforest, the faux-aboriginal name bestowed by U.S. protesters on this great expanse of temperate forest.

Then in September, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, better known as William and Kate, flew into Bella Bella airstrip in what I’m told was a wild and wet landing. Their Royal Highnesses announced that the forest is included in the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, a network of forest conservation programs including all 53 Commonwealth countries.

And then last week, a Texas-owned tugboat pushing a fuel barge south from Alaska ran aground near Bella Bella, and the now-familiar panic and posturing over transport of petroleum products resumed.

This comes as we await the decision of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet on the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline across B.C. to its Westridge terminal in Burnaby. This project is likely to be approved, increasing oil tanker traffic from Vancouver to the point where it almost matches the daily Alaska crude tankers sailing past Victoria.

Back to Bella Bella. The Nathan E. Stewart is not a crude tanker, but rather a tugboat and 10,000-tonne barge that transports refined fuel. The barge was empty when it ran aground Oct. 13, and the tugboat sank in shallow water.

The chorus of protest spread as quickly as the one-molecule-thick diesel sheen from the tug’s fuel tanks. A leading voice was Jess Housty, a Bella Bella resident who proudly describes herself as a Heiltsuk tribal councillor and “foreign funded radical.”

Along with Twitter updates about the barge incident, Housty promoted a strident eco-blog report that Heiltsuk leaders are now demanding the Trudeau government formally legislate a ban on oil tankers off the B.C. coast, and extend it to fuel barges.

I had the pleasure of visiting Bella Bella on a sunny day in September, or at least viewing it from the deck of the BC Ferries vessel Northern Adventure. Bella Bella is currently the only stop on the Inside Passage sailing from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert.

With about 1,400 residents, Bella Bella is one of B.C.’s largest aboriginal communities. It has no road access. Private hydro is wired in from the long-defunct Ocean Falls pulp and paper mill, backed up by diesel generators.

Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett was quoted as saying clam beds at Hartley Bay up the coast have still not recovered from the fuel that escaped when the Queen of the North sank in March 2006.

If that is true, and I would like to see evidence that it is, perhaps it has something to do with another spill that foreign-funded radicals don’t mention. That’s when 15,000 litres of diesel was spilled into Hartley Bay on Dec. 29, 2007 during a transfer from a barge to a large on-shore storage tank that supplies the village’s only power source, diesel generators.

That was a one-day story, barely a blip in the ongoing hand-wringing about fuel still trickling out from the sunken ferry, a year and a half after it went down and two people died.

Day-to-day fuel use is the main risk. If the Heiltsuk protesters get their way, the risk of future fuel spills around Hartley Bay and Bella Bella would soon be reduced substantially.

That’s because both of these villages would soon be deserted.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

 

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