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Seaforth Channel Spill – A DPS Volunteer’s Experience

Seaforth Channel Spill – A DPS Volunteer’s Experience

by Anita Melin, RCC, DPS Volunteer

The following events are a first person account that took place during a Disaster Psychosocial Deployment to Bella Bella, BC October 30th – November 6th, 2016

The Nathan E. Stewart, a 10,000-ton tanker barge owned by Texas-based Kirby Corporation, ran aground around 1 a.m. Thursday, October 13th, 2016, in Seaforth Channel (near Gale Pass on Athlone Island), an ocean home to an active First Nations Community, the Heiltsuk Nation.

The barge itself was empty, but three fuel tanks for the 100-foot tug powering the vessel were damaged and held an estimated 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel, according to a statement from the Heiltsuk Nation.

A spill in this area is problematic because it’s an area where our clam harvesters do a lot of commercial digging,” Jess Housty, Councillor for the Heiltsuk Nation, told DeSmog Canada.

The Disaster Psychosocial Program (DPS), under the Province’s Emergency Health Services program, were called into action. By invitation from the Heiltsuk Nation, DPS deployed volunteers to fly into the Bella Bella community to provide ‘disaster psychosocial support.’

Under the leadership of Ryan Good and Perry Goertzen, DPS Provincial Lead, Irene Champagne, Jodie Millward and I landed into waves of activity responding to this community crisis.  One of the volunteers lived in Bella Bella and was invaluable to the success of this deployment and the coordinated supports for this community of approximately 1400 residents.


Attempts to contain the diesel spill around the sunken tugboat.
Attempts to contain the diesel spill around the sunken tugboat.


Jodie and I orbited around Irene Champagne, the senior leader in the group, whose knowledge of the community and disaster response, coupled with untiring commitment and energy saw to it that all the goals of DPS were carried out within the week.  It was fast paced with ever changing priorities that depended on the pulse of the community and where we were called to action.

The community had to swell to accommodate a multitude of outsiders from around BC and the USA there to respond to this disaster.  At one point, there were four coast guard ships monitoring the activities around the spill site.  Fish and Wildlife groups were there to test the waters and wildlife.  As well, two major clean-up crews were deployed to the area, one from BC and the other from Houston, Texas. These crews worked stern to port with the Heiltsuk residents, in their boats, on often rough ocean and on the shorelines of the surrounding affected areas.

Coast Guard ship - One of four that
Coast Guard ship – one of four that were deployed to the Seaforth Channel Spill


Keep in mind this community can only be reached by airplane or boat, so the activity at the airport and at the docks was swarming for this time of the year. Keeping everyone fed was a major feat by untold folks whose many hands kept the nutrition flowing.  We really enjoyed the purple, grape-coloured jackets that identified us as the boots on the ground.  Thanks to Perry Goertzen, DPS Provincial Lead for flying them in.  Posters were plastered across town for folks to watch for the bright jackets. I could add a tip here – the airport had the best coffee, much appreciated on our long days,  – “Spirit Bear” coffee.

DPS Volunteers Irene Champagne, RCC (left), Jodie Millward, CCC (middle) and Anita Melin, RCC (right) are the volunteers deployed to Bella Bella to assist with the Seaworth Channel spill.


This writer is proud to say that after a week of long gratifying hours, all groups were met by the DPS volunteers, to see what support and resources were needed. Our goals of providing Psychological First Aid, one to one support, crisis counselling, consultation, major outreach by land and sea, stress management in several community locations, and the provision of educational materials were all successfully met.

This was a welcoming community, particularly profound given that it was also a community in mourning. Two members died shortly after the diesel accident.  The resilience of the people of this land and ocean certainly reflects the nautical depths of their ancient history.  What an honor to be invited to be a part of a Nation in action. They coordinated literally hundreds of people in response to a disaster at sea with the intention of preserving these waters as the “Gateway to the Great Bear Rain Forest”, for now and future generations.