The federal government continues to drag its feet in providing compensation for First Nations communities and businesses involved in cleaning up a massive marine debris spill on the West Coast, according to Courtenay-Alberni Member of Parliament Gord Johns.
On November 3, 2016, 35 shipping containers fell off the Hanjin Seattle container ship near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Nearby beaches, including in Pacific Rim National Park, were soon covered in a mass of marine debris. Johns said Parks Canada staff responded quickly, but Ottawa failed to act. Hanjin Shipping had already filed for bankruptcy the previous August, leaving many of their ships in legal and operational limbo.
"Parks Canada immediately petitioned the company for damages, and they were able to obtain $76,600. That didn't take long. They had great success in getting the money to Ottawa," Johns said. "But the money did not end up in the [affected] communities until May or June."
Johns said a full spectrum of community groups had already pitched in to help clean up the beaches, including the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Park Guardians. The MP said Pacific Rim Surfrider took a leading role in the effort, along with Wild Pacific Trail.
“Surfrider has done a great job coordinating with Tla-o-qui-aht,” said Tla-o-qui-aht Natural Resources Manager Saya Masso. “We did participate on a number of occasions and helped out when we could. But not at the level we would have liked to. We had a major beach cleanup on Long Beach.”
Johns noted that Flores Island, the home of Ahousaht First Nation, was hard hit.
"Many Ahousaht members went out and worked with Surfrider. They helped on the beach, doing the cleanup. They also went out on the water in their boats,” he said.
Masso acknowledged that the challenge was even greater on the many islands scattered along the coast and in Clayoquot Sound.
“Many of our [cleanup] beaches were accessible by road, but for Ahousaht, theirs are more accessible by skiff,” Masso said. “There was a tremendous amount of debris, some of it on remote islands. People get dropped off and assembled all these bags that have to be helicoptered out.”
Atleo Air provided helicopter service to lift bundles of debris off remote beaches.
“Ahousaht really has a different sense of input for this project,” Masso said.
Ahousaht resident and Keltsmaht Enterprises co-owner Marcie Callewaert said as part of the cleanup, her charter boat, Sweet Marie, was contracted to move volunteers, at a seriously discounted rate.
"Sometimes we were bringing garbage back with us," she said. "There was so much Styrofoam, but also a lot of fish farm debris. The funding was for the Hanjin debris, but they took out everything."
Callewaert said she was advised that most of the 35 containers that went overboard were empty, except for their foam liners. But the debris did include a number of massive refrigeration units, heavily lined and packed with styrofoam, which managed to float ashore.
“And I heard one of them might have been filled with motorcycle parts,” she added.
Styrofoam has proven to be a major portion of the debris field, along with other plastics. The Styrofoam has disintegrated with the wind and weather, scattering a potentially toxic crust along the coastline.
Johns said Surfrider nearly exhausted their own bank account, rather than let the cleanup campaign die down.
"Everyone rallied together. But the federal government has been invisible," Johns said. "Within the first few days of the spill happening, I stood up in the House of Commons, calling on the government to assist with the cleanup. And they didn't do anything. They haven't used a federal dollar to date.
"If this was in the Ottawa River, you can bet they would be right on top of it."
Masso confirmed that, to date, Tla-o-qui-aht has not received a dime in federal funding.
Ottawa did eventually allocate portions of the Parks Canada money to compensate community groups that spent their own money to pick up and haul debris. An ad hoc group known as Clayoquot Cleanup raised $90,000 to keep the cleanup going.
"They went in with heavy equipment, with helicopters and barges. They did a massive removal of marine debris."
Throughout this time, Johns said he has raised the issue with the Prime Minister, the Minister of Transport, Minister of the Environment and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
"All of them are well aware of this issue. I talked to all of their parliamentary secretaries and their staff. Repeatedly."
The MP said what Ottawa discovered is that there is no mechanism, or any funding formula, to deal with marine debris. This in the face of one of the largest marine spills in decades on the West Coast.
In response, Johns said PM Justin Trudeau vigourously defended his Ocean Protection Program in the House.
"The next day, I reminded him that ocean plastics and marine debris are not even mentioned – not even once – in the Ocean Protection Plan. The Minister of Transport admitted there was a problem. Then, in September, they started making verbal announcements and photo-ops, but we still haven't seen anything on the ground."
In Question Period on Sept. 26, Johns continued to put pressure on the Trudeau government.
“Last week, the government announced on Twitter that it signed on to the UN CleanSeas initiative, but today it is obvious that there is no funding and no plan to meet our obligations. Unfortunately, Tweets and selfies will not
clean our coastlines,” he said, to introduce his question: “When will the government finally get to work and fund the cleanup of the Hanjin debris field?”
In response, Minister of Transport Marc Garneau pointed to the federal government’s commitment to the coasts as part of $1.5 billion, 5-year Oceans Protection Plan.
“As part of the Oceans Protection Plan, we made it very clear that we would be introducing legislation with respect to abandoned and wrecked vessels,” he said. “Part of the Oceans Protection Plan is to hold the ships that have lost some of their cargo responsible for cleaning up the cargo themselves.”
Some of the debris collected thus far has been shipped to Vancouver for recycling and disposal, but most remains, in bags, on the beaches, awaiting pickup.
Johns said with the increase of freighter traffic and the proliferation of massive container ships, it would be wise to impose a small eco-fee on each ship passing through B.C. coastal waters. The money accrued could be set aside to compensate communities and companies that step in to clean up after spills, major and minor.
Masso said the current edition of (uniformed) Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Park Guardians was created in 2008, but the Nation has performed most of the associated workload for the past three decades.
“Marine stewardship is something that is very important to Nuu-chah-nulth people,” he said, adding that the Guardians have taken on the task of training (and motivating) volunteers to maintain and watch over the environment.
Masso said he is following the discussion in Ottawa with great interest.