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Response to the grounding and sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart – Roles and responsibilities (M16P0378)

The occurrence

On 13 October 2016, shortly after 0100 Pacific Daylight Time, the articulated tug-barge composed of the tug Nathan E. Stewart and the tank barge DBL 55 went aground on Edge Reef near Athlone Island, approximately 10 nautical miles west of Bella Bella, British Columbia, in the Heiltsuk First Nation's traditional territory. The tug's hull was eventually breached and approximately 110 000 litres of diesel fuel were released into the environment. The tug subsequently sank and separated from the barge. It was removed from the environment 33 days after the occurrence. Seven 208-litre drums of diesel oil-soiled absorbent pads were collected from the site.

The response

Multiple agencies from various jurisdictions worked together to manage the spill response and salvage operation under an incident command system. This system provided a formal structure for command, control and coordination. Some 40 primary and secondary agencies, approximately 45 vessels and more than 200 people took part in response and salvage activities.

The main responsibilities of the primary agencies involved in the response to this occurrence are described below.

At the federal level

Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) holds the lead federal role in managing Canada's fisheries and safeguarding its waters. With the deployment of the Canadian Coast Guard, it actively participated in this occurrence on many levels, including search and rescue (SAR) and oil spill response.

Canadian Coast Guard

A special operating agency of DFO, the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) is the lead operational agency for marine pollution incidents in Canadian waters. It owns and operates a fleet of vessels, air-cushion vehicles, and helicopters, and provides key maritime safety and environmental protection services. It is required to deploy its resources within six hours of assessing a pollution incident.

In this occurrence, CCG personnel assumed the following responsibilities among others. They worked to stabilize and secure the articulated tug-barge unit. They conducted soundings around the site and controlled site safety. In addition to transporting responders, they provided first aid, protective equipment, on-site communications and situation reports. They also assisted with boom deployment and other operations. A multi-tasked vessel, the CCG ship Bartlett,deployed immediately after the occurrence and remained on scene after the search and rescue operation to monitor all spill response activities.

Transport Canada

Transport Canada (TC) is the lead federal agency in providing legislative and regulatory oversight for marine spills in Canadian waters. It works to prevent marine pollution, and also to prepare and respond to marine pollution incidents. It is responsible for assessing the compliance level of tugs and barges operating on the west coast, and investigates ship-source pollution occurrences.

Environment and Climate Change Canada

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) is the federal authority responsible for providing environmental and scientific advice during an oil spill. Its staff provided key information to the unified command, including weather and spill movement forecasts, location of sensitive areas and appropriate response strategies. They assisted in providing regulatory oversight and monitoring practices and clean-up methods. ECCC also launched an investigation of potential infractions of the environmental and wildlife acts and regulations.

At the provincial level

Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy

British Columbia's Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy is the key provincial agency coordinating the province's response to pollution incidents within its jurisdiction. In this occurrence, the province monitored the response to ensure it met provincial expectations. It worked with the unified command in developing sampling and wildlife plans. It also kept the public informed by posting information about the spill response.

At the regional/local level

Heiltsuk First Nation

The Nathan E. Stewart'sgrounding occurred within the traditional territories of the Heiltsuk First Nation, a self-governing nation that exercises its rights to steward and harvest its resources throughout its territories. Heiltsuk vessels were among the first on the scene of the occurrence. Throughout the environmental response and salvage operations, members of the Heiltsuk First Nation deployed booms and other equipment, transported personnel, and provided traditional ecological, cultural and marine knowledge and experience.

Owner of the Nathan E. Stewart

Kirby Offshore Marine, the owner of the tug, assumed responsibility for the accident. It operated within the unified command and funded the spill response and salvage operations. The authorized representative signed a third-party agreement with the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation to conduct spill response and contracted a marine response and salvage company as well as scientific experts to advise on the clean-up and wildlife response.

Western Canada Marine Response Corporation

The Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) is the only TC-certified operational support organization for spill response on Canada's west coast. In this occurrence, the WCMRC was responsible for the on-water recovery operations under a third-party agreement with the owner of the Nathan E. Stewart. It provided safety expertise, helped conduct site assessments, safety briefings, response training, health and safety plans, and on-site air monitoring. It also posted on its website all action plans provided by the unified command throughout the 42 days of the spill response.

Independent investigative bodies

Transportation Safety Board of Canada

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) does not take part in spill response and salvage operations. It is an independent federal agency whose mandate is to advance transportation safety by investigating selected occurrences in the marine, pipeline, rail and air modes of transportation. In making its findings as to the causes and contributing factors of a transportation occurrence, the Board does not assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability. The TSB led the investigation into the circumstances of the Nathan E. Stewart grounding and sinking, identified the causes and the underlying risk factors, and also examined the immediate response to the spill. It has made recommendations to address the issues identified through its investigation.

National Transportation Safety Board

Because the articulated tug-and-barge was a U.S.-flagged vessel, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – the TSB's American counterpart – also investigated the occurrence. Section 9.1 of the International Maritime Organization's Casualty Investigation Code provides that another "substantially interested State" can also conduct its own separate safety investigation.