New system alerts coastal First Nations about hazardous spills on land and water

Topic(s): Environment, Fisheries, Food Security, Health & Wellness

The spill notification system is the result of a collaboration between 12 First Nations and the province.


A new notification system and app that alerts coastal B.C. First Nations about oil or hazardous chemical spills on their lands and waters was recently launched.

The initiative was developed collaboratively between 12 First Nations and the province’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. The process was coordinated by Coastal First Nations-Great Bear Initiative.  

The system uses technology from Alertable, an emergency alert system that is used by various local governments to notify residents about critical alerts in their communities such as those related to floods or fires. 

In 2021, when planning for a Reconciliation Framework for Bioregional Oceans Management and Protection was taking place, coastal First Nations recognized a need for improved spill notification systems on their territories, according to a news release from Coastal First Nations-Great Bear Initiative.

A total of 22 First Nations have signed up for the alerts. Locally, Nanwakolas Council — a group representing Mamalilikulla, Tlowitsis, Da’naxda’xw Awaetlala, Wei Wai Kum, We Wai Kai and K’ómoks First Nations — also participated in the development of the alert system. 

Julie Gordon, working on behalf of Coastal First Nations-Great Bear Initiative, told The Discourse in an email that the app has replaced a manual approach to alert First Nations about spills and is paving the way for more timely responses to these spills. Subscribers to the app will now receive spill alerts right away.

“[The manual approach] resulted in gaps and delays to First Nations getting timely information about spills. These delays could devastate marine ecosystems and the food stocks and livelihoods of Coastal First Nations communities,” Gordon said.

Past spills have severe impact

Steve Diggon, marine program manager for Coastal First Nations-Great Bear Initiative, said there have been various spills in the past as well as near-miss incidents that highlighted the importance of such an alert system. He said a few spills have also left a devastating impact on the environment and surrounding communities. 

In 2016, the U.S.-owned Nathan E. Stewart tugboat ran aground and spilled 110,000 litres of heavy oil and diesel and 2,000 litres of lubricants into the Seaforth Channel on Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) territory. The area was a major source for shellfish harvesting for Heiltsuk Nation, with the clam beds in the area providing up to $200,000 in income each year for the Nation, according to a 2021 CBC News story that outlined how the nation was still heavily impacted by the incident five years later.

The response to that spill from both the corporation behind the catastrophe and the provincial and the federal governments was “botched,” according to the Nation. The Canadian Coast Guard didn’t notify Heiltsuk leaders for three hours, and it took another 17 hours for a Transport Canada spill response team to arrive.

In a 2017 news release from Coastal First Nations-Great Bear Initiative, Kelly Brown, director of Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department said ”we’re learning the hard way that Indigenous people and coastal communities can’t count on polluters, Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, or the governments of B.C. and Canada in a crisis situation.”

In 2017, a storm left the Jake Shearer tugboat disconnected from its fuel barge off the coast of Bella Bella in an important Heiltsuk food harvesting location. The American fuel barge Zidelle Marine 277 was carrying 468,000 litres of gasoline and about 3.5 million litres of diesel and was marked as a potential risk of spill at the time, according to CBC News. Only one year after the Nathan E. Stewart spill, the incident left the community calling for a need for more Indigenous-led responses to potential spills. 

Other major spill incidents can be found on the province’s website, and many have occurred along the coastal regions that the new alert system will cover. These include various fuel spills along northern Vancouver Island, a diesel spill north of Haida Gwaii in 2020 and a storage tank diesel spill in Rivers Inlet in 2021. 

Diggon said the Coastal First Nations-Great Bear Initiative is supporting First Nation communities in preventative work and pre-planning in the event of future incidents.

Previous system resulted in delays

Previously when a spill occurred, the incident report would be sent to a provincial environmental Emergency Coordination Centre where someone would then attempt to reach First Nation communities in the vicinity of the incident using lists of phone numbers. Diggon said a variety of factors could impact whether or not the phone call would get through or not, such as whether the numbers are up to date or if the spill incident happened during business hours.

Now, Diggon said First Nations can choose to receive notifications through their smartphones and the app. First Nation members such as chiefs and councillors, as well as people who are working in the field such as “marine stewardship directors, Guardian Watchmen or marine officers can all sign up for specific areas and collectively receive the alert.”

Using the app, First Nations are able to self-select their home territories, as well as adjacent areas that may affect them if there is ever a spill incident. By signing up for alerts, they can be notified about a spill incident in the areas they’ve signed up for.

Guardian Watchmen also help protect coastal lands and waters

One group that will be using this new system is the Coastal Guardian Watchmen who lead an Indigenous stewardship program that works to look after the lands and waters for Coastal First Nations. 

Danny Hurry, Guardian Watchmen manager for Wei Wai Kum First Nation, told The Discourse that much of the Guardian Watchmen’s role involves restoration work and the protection of the natural resources within the nation’s territory. He said that he has run a lot of preparedness drills with the surrounding nations, such as K’ómoks and Wei Wei Kai. 

“We all know each other quite well, it’s kind of like a nice tight knit group,” Hurry said.

He also said the new alert system is important for Wei Wai Kum.

“In previous years, we’ve kind of been left in the dark with a lot of stuff like that. But as things have been moving forward, we’ve been more and more on the frontline aiding in spill response [and] being in the unified command,” Hurry said. “[The alert system has] been a faster process. It relays quite a bit of information, showing you where [the spill] is and gives you constant updates as things go along.”

He said that they do get pings outside the nation as well, but when they’re within the territory, the nation can respond accordingly if there’s a big issue. 

“This really helps us with needs in that situation, and just keeps us on top of things,” he said.