The Environmental Impacts of an Aquatic Oil Spill on the Heiltsuk First Nations

by ldewar on November 10, 2017 - 9:54pm

The Heiltsuk First Nations is continuing to suffer from the effects of an oil spill that occurred last fall along the coast of Bella Bella, B.C. The tugboat ran aground creating extensive damage to the bilge tank, causing an estimated 110,000 litres of diesel and another 2,000 litres of lubricants to be pumped out into the ocean. The aquatic spill has resulted in the contamination of Gale Pass, a sacred Heiltsuk harvesting area that is home to manila clam and other shellfish. The valuable clam beds have a reported annual income of $200,000 to the Indigenous community, and has remained closed due to contamination by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The Director of Integrated Resource Management for the Heiltsuk, Kelly Brown, believes it will cost the community around $500,000 to complete all necessary sampling. Clam fishing and harvesting is part of the traditional process for the Heiltsuk, and the oil spill has not only affected the community financially, but spiritually. Currently, the First Nations community is preparing to take legal action, but is looking for government support. Furthermore, the tugboat owners and the province of BC are participating in ongoing Environmental Impact Assessment work and are encouraging the community to participate in recovery efforts. 

Does the Bella Bella oil spill incident predict the first of many oil spills to come for the BC coastline because of the recent approval from Federal Government to expand the Trans Mountain Pipeline? The proposed pipeline will triple the quantity of crude oil traveling along the coast and will result in increased tanker traffic. Therefore, after the Heiltsuk experience and implementation of Trans Mountain Pipeline can be conclude there is a high certainty of risk for increased spills. 

The Government of Canada released new legislation detailing improved management to the Spill Preparedness, Response and Recovery of the Environmental Management Act that took effect on October 30, 2017 (Government of BC, 2017). The new legislation resembles a command and control style of management because it is governed by the state. The top down approach operates on the polluter-pays-principle, and has added mandatory contingency plans and restoration methods prior to oil transportation. With the recently updated legislation outlining the improved restorative measures, why is Bella Bella still suffering from a spill that occurred 12 months ago, with only the help from community level actors? 

The new regulations fail to mention the role of the community or Indigenous actors in the occurrence of the spill and how to bridge their efforts with market and state actors. Instead it requires the party responsible to provide a description of the area before the spill. This is an opportunity for the government to incorporate the involvement of the local communities and/or First Nations, Metis, or Inuit people who could provide valuable insight on management practices. Referring back to the spill in Bella Bella, the Heiltsuk First Nations could have been consulted on how to respond to the spill, utilizing their valuable knowledge on the specific geography of the area. Public participation and co-management can provide increased knowledge and perspectives on governance to state and market actors, such as providing insight to contingency plans. Coastline communities are stakeholders in this decision-making process, and like Heiltsuk, will probably play a role in the cleanup of their community. Therefore, it is important to bridge these actors to co-manage the preparedness, response and recovery.

It is expected that a second phase of amendments for the Spill Preparedness, Response and Recovery of the Environmental Management Act will be implemented in 2018. It will hopefully address an increased capacity for public participation and learn from the experiences the Heiltsuk First Nations and other communities near Bella Bella are having to overcome.


Government of BC. Spills and Environmental Emergencies. (2017) New Spill Response Regulations to take effect October 30, 2017. Retrieved from


Lindsay, B. (2017, October 13). ‘We're the ones that have to live here’: Heiltsuk still feel impact of fuel spill. CBC News. Retrieved from