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Federal ministers head to Bella Bella to view diesel spill amid concerns over wildlife

The Heiltsuk First Nation says two federal ministers are flying over the diesel spill site near Bella Bella, B.C., today and talking to the First Nation about the disaster members claim has killed sea life.

In a press release, the Heiltsuk First Nation said Dominic LeBlanc, the minister of fisheries, and Jody Wilson-Raybould, the minister of justice, are meeting with the Heiltsuk Tribal Council and Unified Command, which is a coalition of four government and Heiltsuk leaders.

They are planning a flyover of the marine life-rich spot where a tugboat sank and began leaking diesel fuel, which Heiltsuk leaders say remains “uncontained.”

Fisheries Minister Dominic Le Blanc and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould

Fisheries Minister Dominic Le Blanc (left) and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (right) stand outside the Heiltsuk centre in Bella Bella, B.C., with Jess Housty (centre), a member of the Heiltsuk Nation council. (April Bencze/Heiltsuk Nation)

Diesel fuel has been leaking from the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat, which was carrying 200,000 litres of fuel when it ran aground and sank about 28 kilometres from Bella Bella on Oct. 13.

As crews work to clean up the spill, there have been reports of dead wildlife and the local crab fishery was shut down.

Requests to Ottawa for interviews with the two ministers have so far gone unanswered.

Clean-up continues

Last Thursday, the Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said in the House of Commons that marine security on the North Coast needed improvement.

Bella Bella absorbent pads

Absorbent pads are used to try to soak up oil leaking from the sunken tug. (Tavish Campbell/Heiltsuk Nation)

“We are certainly recognizing the fact that we need to do better on marine security. We are looking at the issue of compensation. We need to improve the protection on all of our three coasts. That is why the minister of fisheries and oceans and I have been working for months now and will have some things to say very shortly,” Garneau said.

Bella Bella spill

A large diesel slick adjacent to the spill site is now visible, forming a rainbow on the ocean surface in images taken by local photographers. (Tavish Campbell/Heiltsuk Nation)

Heiltsuk leaders report that a new, large diesel slick adjacent to the spill site is now visible and looks like a “rainbow scar” on the ocean in images taken by local photographers.

“It appears to be emanating from the oiled beach behind the sunken dirty tug,” said a Heiltsuk First Nation press release today.

Booms and absorbent pads are being used to try to mop the oil out of the ocean, but weather is expected to turn foul again, with swells of up to three metres and winds between 15 and 25 knots (27 to 46 km/h).

Dead wildlife

The latest situation report from Unified Command, which is overseeing clean-up crews, said wildlife assessment teams spotted some dead animals in the past week, including a seal, a sea otter and crabs.

More recently, dead salmon were collected from Gale Creek and a cod was seen struggling at the mouth of Raymond Pass, west of Odin.

Fisheries Minister in Bella Bella

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc (right) ready for his fly-over of the spill site with three other passengers. (April Bencze/Heiltsuk Nation)

But the report also says no wildlife covered in oil or fuel have been documented in the past few days, and some of the dead species have been collected for testing to determine what specifically caused their deaths.

A distressed deer was also spotted in Gale Creek.

There were fears the animal ingested diesel via the intertidal zone, as deer often lick salt off rocks and seaweed.

A subsistence crab fishery in the same area has been shut down out of concerns for the crab population and now the safety of the meat.

Ariel view

A flyover of the area near Bella Bella, B.C., where a tug boat sank and started leaking diesel fuel on Oct. 13. (Kyle Artelle/Heiltsuk Nation)

Waters near Bella Bella BC

A whale swims near Bella Bella, B.C. (Tavish Campbell/Heiltsuk Nation)