A plan to tow a loaded fuel barge to safety after it broke off its tug was scuttled by poor weather Monday afternoon near Bella Bella, but crews were able to anchor both by evening.
The barge was being pushed through Queen Charlotte sound by a U.S. articulated tug called the Jake Shearer when it broke apart from the fuel barge in rough seas Sunday. Officials say the connecting mechanism was damaged and a new tug would be required to complete the tow job.
The Zidell Marine 277 is a 128-metre barge loaded with 3.5 million litres of diesel and nearly half a million litres of gasoline.
Another tug, the Gulf Cajun, was brought in to tow the barge the rest of the way, and arrived Monday where the Jake Shearer had anchored in the Inside Passage.
But deteriorating weather conditions Monday afternoon kept the Gulf Cajun and its Coast Guard escort from tugging the barge to the original place of refuge and they set off for a new location at the north end of Campbell Island.
The Coast Guard said it was working with the province, federal government and local First Nations on its response.
On Tuesday morning, the agency confirmed the tug and barge were safely anchored in Norman Morison Bay, about five kilometres north of Bella Bella.
Officials said booms had been placed around the vessels as a precaution and that both will be inspected.
An aerial sweep by a Coast Guard flight over the area Monday included an Environmental Emergency Response Officer. A late afternoon update from the Ministry of Environment confirmed "no sheen or product was observed in the water around the barge, the tug or at the barge’s previous location."
Further examination showed no indications of fuel release from the tug or barge, but a Canadian Coast Guard vessel is monitoring nearby.
The executive director at Pacific Wild, a non-profit located in the Great Bear Rainforest on Denny Island, said the group's initial reaction was "devastation.
"This is an area that we've been working in for over 30 years," Ian McAllister said.
The barge incident came just over a year after a tug called the Nathan E. Steward ran aground, spilling about 110,000 litres of diesel and other contaminants into the water.
The Heiltsuk Nation is calling for the federal government to support its plan for Canada’s first Indigenous Marine Response Centre, first proposed earlier this month following a report on the response to the October 2016 spill and renewed by this week's scare.
"It was a sleepless night knowing that the fate of our waters relied on the strength of just a couple of anchor lines holding the barge in place,” Hereditary Chief Harvey Humchitt said in a statement.
"This is just one more reminder of why Indigenous first responders should be involved in marine response decision-making right from the start."
Harley Marine Services, the U.S. owner of the barge, said it will conduct a full investigation into what happened. The company said it's been using articulated tug barges without any issue until Sunday, but some experts say the tugs are more difficult to control in rough waters and bad weather.
Divers from the company were expected to examine the tug Tuesday, along with inspectors from Transport Canada.