The media have returned to Hartley Bay, one year after the sinking of the Queen of the North.
Many stories have been written about the courage of the villagers that night, as they came to the aid of the survivors of the sinking.
Not quite as many have focused in on a rather unwelcome legacy of the tragedy, the leaking of fuel from the sunken ferry and the effect it may be having on the lives and food supply of the residents.
Jack Knox of the Victoria Times Colonist made the trip to Hartley Bay to investigate the Queen of the North situation, some ghosts of the past and worries about the future.
Leaking of sunken ferry's fuel is source of much worry
Hartley Bay worried that a leak will destroy their source of food and livelihood
Monday, March 19, 2007
HARTLEY BAY - What you need to understand is that for the Gitga'at, a fuel spill in Wright Sound would be akin to a bomb going off in every grocery store in Victoria.
Much, perhaps most, of the food eaten by the people of Hartley Bay comes from the ocean -- which is why they fear what might happen if diesel trapped inside the sunken Queen of the North escapes, and why they are bitter about how long it is taking to defuse what they see as a ticking time bomb.
A year after the March 22 disaster, B.C. Ferries and the coast guard still aren't sure how to deal with the ship's fuel tanks, 400 metres under water.
That's not good enough for Gitga'at chief councillor Bob Hill, who won't let B.C. Ferries forget an earlier promise to have the fuel removed by the end of 2006.
"I'm really fed up with it," says Hill. "We could have anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 litres of fuel still on this vessel."
On the other hand, there could be very little left on board. That's the problem. Nobody is sure. "You don't know until you actually get down there," says coast guard spokesman Dan Bate. Only trace amounts of diesel are rising to the surface now.
The coast guard, B.C. Ferries and international salvage experts are still trying to figure out the best way to tackle the problem. Bate said they hope to have a plan by mid-April, and want to be sure of doing the right thing. "You would hate to go down and put a hole in the vessel that releases more fuel and causes more destruction."
After the ferry sank, the surface was thick with diesel. "The smell was atrocious," says Hill. Outflow winds pushed the spill up Grenville Channel and out past Banks Island. It missed the camp where the Gitga'at pick kelp and jig for halibut in May and June, but fouled the Fin Island beaches where they dig for clams.
Many of the people who depend on these waters for their diet -- salmon, seals, Dungeness crab, herring, cockles -- remain leery. "I have not gone out to harvest clams this year in a traditional area that my grandfather took me as a little boy," says Cam Hill, a teacher at the Hartley Bay school. "It's the first time I haven't done that. I haven't harvested the sea cucumbers. I haven't got answers to the questions I have as to whether it's safe or not."
The Gitga'at are much more worried about this than they are about B.C. Ferries' decision to call its new ferry Northern Adventure instead of Spirit of Hartley Bay, as had been popularly proposed. "We're not concerned about the name," says Hill. "We're concerned about the fuel." (Though he jokes that the village may change its name to Northern Adventure.) B.C. Ferries hasn't ignored Hartley Bay, whose residents rushed to the aid of the people who abandoned the stricken ferry. The corporation is building the community a new gangway and donating equipment for what will be a memorial playground. "We're very appreciative of that," says Hill. But it is the fuel that really matters.
Hill says there are no safeguards against a sudden upwelling of diesel. The Gitga'at are set to launch shellfish aquaculture projects at three nearby sites, but are reluctant to do so while the fuel threat remains.
The Queen of the North isn't all there is to worry about. At the bottom of Grenville Channel, 40 kilometres from Hartley Bay, rests the Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski, a U.S. army transport ship that sank in 1946. Divers patched some cracks after the wreck began to leak oil in 2003, but they abandoned the work after the hulk was found to be full of unexploded bombs. The Canadian and U.S. governments are still trying to sort out that one.
Many of the Gitga'at also worry about proposals to ship condensate -- a kerosene-like liquid -- and crude oil to and from pipelines that would stretch between northern Alberta and Kitimat on the B.C. coast. That would mean tankers travelling down Douglas Channel, right past Hartley Bay's front door.
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007