Sinking prompts rethink

A sunken tug and the subsequent diesel spill on British Columbia's central coast is prompting a rethink to emergency response that could allow those closest to the disaster to take the lead, says the federal indigenous affairs minister.

Carolyn Bennett told the Assembly of First Nations gathering in Victoria that her government has promised to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the Heiltsuk First Nation in the waters and on the shoreline off Bella Bella that have been soiled by the fuel spill.

But she said sometimes helping may mean stepping back.

"This is about respect and not swooping in and doing something that we think is right. It is about listening to the nation and working with them," the minister told First Nation leaders.

The Nathan E. Stewart tug was pushing a barge on Oct. 13 when it ran aground and later sank. It was carrying over 200,000 litres of diesel, 2,400 litres lube oil and nearly 3,700 litres of water, oil, sludge and other engine-room contaminants called dirty bilge.

Bennett said that in the future, being ready for such events will mean having locals prepared.

"To have First Nations as first responders is going to be hugely important and they're ready, willing and able, we've just got to get on with it," she told reporters after her speech.

She said sometimes helpers show up who end up distracting the process when the community could just get on with the work.

Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett said Monday that the spill is certainly a cautionary tale for preparation for coastal First Nations.

She said they are just now assessing the impact in the area.

"It's an area rich with resources and ultimately a lifeline for our community," she said, adding that she watched a humpback whale swim through a fuel slick on her most recent fly-over of the spill.

A situation report issued Monday said two tanks containing oil or contaminants from the submerged tug off the coast of the Great Bear Rainforest were either torn open or severely damaged when the vessel ran aground.

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