HEILTSUK NATION OULINES PLAN FOR OIL SPILL RESPONSE IN BC'S CENTRAL COAST
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By Cori Marshall
Addressing inadequate oil spill response has been a rather hot topic of late. Earlier this month WWF-Canada convened groups of stakeholders to discuss how to improve response in the North. On November 15, the Heiltsuk Nation published a 196-page report entitled Indigenous Marine Response Centre (IMRC) Creating a World-Leading Response System.
The report addressed what is lacking in oil spill response in the Central and Northern Coast areas of British Columbia, and makes a case for the IMRC in Bella Bella.
Heiltsuk Nation Chief Councilor Marilyn Slett said that "we have stewarded our territory since time immemorial." The community also has "a strong stewardship department."
The inspiration for this project came in the form of a disaster, the Nathan E. Stewart, a tugboat that was moving an empty fuel barge when it crashed and sank in the Seaforth Channel spilling diesel into the waters.
Slett said that the spill "was devastating to our community." She explained that the Heiltsuk Nation and "other indigenous communities on the coast are typically the first responders to incidents that happen in our respective territories."
It was during the spill that the community realized that the Central Coast region was "ill-equipped, ill-prepared, and couldn't do anything but standby and the devastation to our shorelines" Slett underlined. "Coming out of this we have to take a look at the response [capacity] that is there on the coast, what are the gaps and what can we do to improve that."
In order to produce the report, the community compiled 20 years worth of data from various federal departments. Slett explained that "we looked at models that different countries have, then the vulnerability that still exists on our coasts without having added infrastructure and capacity within our communities."
The report "includes what response times would be if we had a Response Center here in Bella Bella, that considers the investment regarding vessels, land-based infrastructure and communications."
Slett said that "we feel that the report is well balanced, informative, and really speaks to the need to have an Indigenous Response Center here on the Central Coast."
"A lot of people rely on the Coast for sustenance, livelihood, and for cultural purposes," Slett explained, "there are other users with tourism and other types of commercial fisheries."
The Heiltsuk Nation "as a community have done a lot of work around marine stewardship, looking at ways we can protect fish habitats and rehabilitation work with marine species."
"Considering the rebuilding efforts, stewardship efforts, values integration, and the economies that are here on the coast, that an investment to protect those efforts is needed," Slett said.
Last November the $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan which would preserve and restore affected marine ecosystems and create stronger partnerships with Indigenous and engaged Coastal Communities. Slett feels that the report is situated within this initiative.
When asked how this plan would differ from the traditional federal response, Slett said "right now there is no Central Coast presence, there is no marine response, there is a response in Prince Rupert and Vancouver, but right now nothing here." The plan would "provide that presence and capacity at a local level," Slett explained.
"There are areas along the Central Coast that are in many ways pristine," Slett said, we feel it is really important to protect that." She underlined that "as Indigenous people, land and sea is connected for us, if we protect the land we are protecting the sea, and if we protect the sea we are protecting the land."
The proposal is that the IMRC "will respond to a wide variety of marine incidents that could lead to oil contaminating the environment." According to the proposal, the Centre will be prepared to respond at a moment's notice, and will consist of a crew who are stationed at the centre, who live in the area, and are familiar with the region, waterways, and weather conditions."
Slett stated that the community feels the report "is something that should be released to the general public, our neighbours, government, it is our vision of Indigenous response." Slett added that "we have worked together with our neighbours on many different projects, for us it was really important to share this report with them." This report and this type of response, organized at the local level may be something that other coastal communities should be looking at.