Hartley Bay oil spill – a tanker in a tea cup?
by Peter Ewart, Pacific Free Press, May 6, 2012
The oil spill in Grenville Channel, near the remote village of Hartley Bay on the Pacific Ocean – just a tempest in a teacup?
At least that’s the argument a Federal government Fisheries and Ocean official appears to be pushing when he claims the entire spill may only be “about one-tenth of a litre in volume” (Globe and Mail, May 2).
But the First Nations people in Hartley Bay and the commercial pilots flying over the region are saying something very different. According to them, the spill is “between two and five miles long and 200 feet wide.”
One Hartley Bay observer noted he had witnessed “bubbles of oil” coming up to the surface (Canadian Press, May 2).
As Ben Meisner put it on the Meisner radio show (May 3), that’s like the federal government official trying to argue that this huge spill could somehow fit into a small teacup.
This heavy oil is believed to be leaking from a U.S. army transport ship that sank way back in 1946 and was carrying 700 tonnes of bunker fuel, as well as munitions, onboard. One shudders to think what this same government official would estimate if a supertanker carrying hundreds of thousands of barrels of raw bitumen ever spilled its toxic load into the Pacific waters. Would he upgrade his estimate from a teacup to that of a beer glass, or maybe even a gallon jug?
In any case, this latest spill is a microcosm of all the things that are wrong about shipping bitumen across the rugged terrain of northern British Columbia and into the holds of ocean supertankers.
First of all, it is not the only submerged wreck in that region which is leaking toxic fuel. The ferry, Queen of the North, sank in 2006, in Wright Sound also near Hartley Bay with 220,000 litres of diesel fuel and 23,000 litres of lubricating oil. As Arnold Clifton, from the Gitga’at First Nation, has said, the fuel from the wreck is “still burping stuff up” (Postmedia News, May 3).
So, after 66 years, the heavy oil from the U.S army transport ship has never been cleaned up, other than a couple of attempts a few years ago to patch the hull. The federal government points the finger at the U.S. government and nothing gets done. And the heavy oil continues to leak and foul the waters of our pristine coast, its stench drowning out the smell of the sea and forest.
And, after 6 years, the hundreds of thousands of litres of diesel and lubricating oil from the Queen of the North are still sitting there like a bomb, slowly leaking, just waiting to erupt below the ocean surface. When MLA Shane Simpson raised this issue in the BC Legislature back in 2007, provincial Minister of Environment Barry Penner criticized him for “armchair engineering”, and, instead, pointed the finger at the federal government, arguing that it was a federal responsibility. And again, nothing gets done.
Thus the rainbow-coloured, glistening slicks of diesel and lubricating oil continues to lap up on the shores near Hartley Bay. The BC Ferry Corporation, which originally promised that all the fuel would be cleaned up by the end of 2006, has recently stopped monitoring the leakage, which has meant that Hartley Bay residents are now paying out of their own pocket to carry out that function . Monitoring the toxic leaks are important as the Gitga’at people get 40% of their food from the rich shellfish beds and fish stocks found in the waters, as they have been doing for thousands of years. But what do they matter to the finger-pointing governments and the lawyered-up foreign tanker and pipeline companies?
There is a sad irony in all of this. When the Queen of the North sank in 2006, it was the First Nation inhabitants of Hartley Bay who, without hesitation, launched their small boats out into the pitch dark of the night, braving high seas and 75 km an hour winds to save the people on the ferry. 99 of the 101 passengers and crew were saved. Without the bravery and initiative of the Hartley Bay people, along with the crew of a passing Coast Guard vessel, many more could have died. Once rescued, the shaken, cold, and disoriented survivors were warmly welcomed into the homes of the villagers as they awaited transport out of the community.
After the disaster, a suggestion was made that the BC Ferry Corporation re-name the replacement for the sunken ferry the “Spirit of Hartley Bay.” But the CEO of the Corporation, David Hahn, flatly turned that suggestion down, claiming that it didn’t fit the corporation’s “marketing scheme” (Times Colonist, Jan. 6, 2007).
To add insult to injury, in recognition of their contribution, 16 residents from the remote native community were invited to a dinner with Lt.-Gov. Iona Campagnola in Victoria. However, they were initially told to “foot the bill for their travel expenses and hotel, and a communication snafu left them stranded at the airport” without money. Luckily, some sympathetic reporters paid for taxis to transport them to their Victoria hotel.
And so it is, that the people of a tiny, remote village who played a major role in rescuing the ferry passengers in great peril, receive, in “gratitude” from the federal and provincial government, a slow leak of toxic fuel from a sunken ferry and an old warship that is gradually poisoning their traditional fishing waters and territories.
If anyone has the delusion that the other communities of northern BC, whether inland or coastal, will get much different treatment if there is a major bitumen spill from a pipeline leak or a shipwreck, they should reflect upon Hartley Bay’s experience a little more.
A tanker in a tea cup, indeed.