Lessons from the Queen

As oil continues to seep from the sunken Queen of the North, the community of Hartley Bay is preparing to defend itself against larger threats; oil tankers.

Caitlyn Vernon

The Gitga’at people of Hartley Bay know what an oil spill looks like, and how it smells. The sinking of the BC ferry, Queen of the North, has degraded the marine environment in which they live and work, raising fears in the community about proposals to bring oil tankers to Kitimat. The community wants to see the health of the coast restored, not further harmed by another oil spill.

The Queen of the North didn’t sink beneath the waters without a trace. Today, the rainbow sheen of an oil slick on the surface of the ocean still marks the location of the vessel. When the ferry struck Gil Island on March 22, 2006, the spill from the 230,000 litres of diesel and oil onboard coated approximately 89 km of coastline in diesel, killed hundreds of birds, and contaminated shellfish in the area with unsafe levels of hydrocarbons.

More than one year later, the diesel and oil that remain within the sunken ferry (and the cars inside) continue to leak at a rate of nearly half a litre per day. Surface streaks several hundred metres long and up to 10 metres wide are still visible. So Gitga’at Chief Councillor Bob Hill is disappointed that BC Ferries is not planning to remove any of the remaining fuel from the ship. “The environmental impact to us as a community, as a nation, is very real,” says Chief Hill. He points to recent evidence of fuel at Turtle Point on Gil Island, where the Gitga’at have a sacred graveyard.

Hereditary Chief Ernie Hill says that the upwelling oil and diesel is having a huge impact on clam beds that have been harvested for generations. Wary of the high levels of hydrocarbons, residents now have to travel much farther to gather clams, mussels, sea cucumbers, sea urchins and prawns. The Gitga’at people also worry about the contamination of crabs and seaweed, and the effects of the fuel on herring, salmon, seals, sea lions and whales. Crabs, for example, spend the larval stage of their life at the surface of the water, where they are especially vulnerable to the oil slicks. A low survival rate for crabs means fewer jobs in the crab fishery.

The continuing seepage of fuel harms not just the health of the marine ecosystem and the availability of seafood, but also the sustainability of fishing and eco-tourism jobs.
While the spill from the Queen of the North has had a major impact, the amount of diesel leaking from the ferry is small compared to the 364 million litres of oil or more that a supertanker can carry. And from where it lies at the bottom of the ocean, the Queen of the North is a constant reminder that accidents do happen to big ships on the coast. With the proposed volume of tanker traffic, Environment Canada estimates we can expect to see 100 minor, ten moderate, and one major oil spill every year.

This is not a risk the Gitga’at Nation is willing to take. To express their concern, the residents of Hartley Bay have sent delegations to protest the proposed tanker traffic to companies like Enbridge that are proposing the projects.

This isn’t the first time the Gitga’at Nation has opposed oil tanker traffic through its traditional territory. In 1977 the Gitga’at helped to maintain a ban on oil tankers. This time, Lynne Hill, vice-principal of the Hartley Bay school, proposes crocheting a thread to stretch across the rough water of Douglas Channel as a symbolic blockade of the oil tankers. Whatever the method, the people of Hartley Bay are not prepared to stand by quietly while oil tankers plow through their community.

Under BC’s New Relationship, the provincial government has said that it will share decision-making with First Nations over how resources are managed within their traditional territories. This means respecting the desire of coastal communities such as Hartley Bay to maintain the moratorium on oil tankers.

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