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To safeguard the Salish Sea, protect shared waters

Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a massive civic event and the world’s largest secular celebration, originally prompted by a major oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. This week we also mark 10 years since the BP Deepwater Horizon despoiled the cultures, livelihoods and marine life of Gulf Coast residents, many of which have still not fully recovered. Oil spills are something that coastal tribes and First Nations fear, as they directly impacts our cultural practices and livelihoods.

As Pacific Northwesterners mark these major milestones, we want to share the hard lessons we learned with an oil spill catastrophe we experienced in 2016 in Bella Bella, British Columbia. We have a great interest in and a stake in how Washington state and the U.S. government continue to address the growing risk of oil spills in the Salish Sea, threatening not just the orcas but also coastal residents — not to mention treaty-protected tribal fishing rights. Four, 10, 50 years later, what have we learned?

Just over three years ago, we suffered a diesel spill in Gale Pass, the most productive shellfish harvesting area of our territory on British Columbia’s Central Coast. Like the survivors of the Deepwater Horizon, we know there will be no happy ending for a very long time. Generations will pass before the land and waters fully heal.

When the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, memories of the Santa Barbara disaster, and its 800-square-mile oil slick in the Santa Barbara Channel, were still fresh. Twenty million Americans rallied in the streets, in parks and on campuses. Lawmakers worked across the aisle to pass groundbreaking environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

Fifty years later, we seem to be circling back to where we started. Tanker traffic along the West Coast is poised to increase as enabling infrastructure — pipelines and marine terminals — continues to be built and expanded even during the pandemic. Governments are being pressured to relax or suspend hard-won environmental regulations in the name of COVID-19. Meanwhile, double-hulled tankers are increasingly being displaced by “innovations” in oil transport such as articulated tug-barges (ATBs), a type of vessel that does not operate with the same protections as do large tankers and is unsuited to the rough waters of the high seas that often prevail in many places in the Salish Sea and along the British Columbia coast.

One such vessel was the Nathan E. Stewart. On Oct. 13, 2016, it ran aground in Seaforth Channel and spilled over 30,000 gallons of diesel oil in Gale Pass, adjacent to an ancient Heiltsuk village site and Heiltsuk marine harvesting area. Our people have lived there and relied on the bounty of that place since time immemorial. To date, we harvest more than 25 food species from the affected area, including commercial harvests of manila clams, red sea urchin, sea cucumber, salmon and herring spawn on kelp.

Fortunately, we were not subject to the 3 million gallons of oil spilled by the Union Oil Platform A in the Santa Barbara Channel. But it doesn’t take an exploding oil rig, or even a supertanker, to make a significant spill.

The Nathan E. Stewart disaster involved wrongdoing by the company, the captain and crew. The second mate fell asleep on watch. No Canadian pilot was on board, thanks to a waiver from the federal Pacific Pilotage authority. Government and industry first response was slow, chaotic and ineffective, with little to no recovery of petroleum products dumped into our territorial waters.

A Heiltsuk Nation investigation into the first 48 hours of the Nathan E. Stewart oil spill, based on information from first responders, Coast Guard and Unified Command, exposed failures in Canada’s emergency response, including a lack of spill-response materials, ineffective booms and delays in employing them, and confusion over who was in charge in the early hours of the spill. On paper, Canada had a “world-class spill response.” In real life, things couldn’t have been different.

When governments and corporations fail, it is communities — and especially First Nations and tribal communities — that are left to pick up the pieces. ATBs full of petroleum products continue to tramp up and down our coast — as they do in the Salish Sea. The Heiltsuk Nation is determined to fight for justice for our community and for the ocean. We are not willing to bear the risks of transporting petroleum products on our coast in an unsafe manner any longer.

This is why in 2018 we filed a civil case against the polluter, Kirby Corporation, and the governments of Canada and British Columbia. The polluter must be held accountable. Even more importantly, legislation that allows loopholes for polluting industries while ignoring and bypassing indigenous self-determination and governance of our territories must be challenged and changed.

Even if we are successful, there is so much work to be done — work we cannot do alone.

The persistent threat of offshore oil drilling, as proposed by the U.S. federal government, looms large, too. Stronger legislation for marine protection in Washington’s Salish Sea will push the bar higher for Canada, and vice versa. As we mark Earth Day, we must work together on both sides of the border to make systemic changes for the sake of our shared waters.

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