After a near-miss, the safety of Alaska-bound fuel barges is under scrutiny

A near-miss involving a Skagway-bound tug and tanker barge hauling millions of gallons of fuel through the Inside Passage has reignited debate in Canada over shipping petroleum through its territory.

It was big news the next day in western Canada. The incident near Bella Bella, British Columbia, in Canada's portion of the Inside Passage, was just a few miles from the site of a similar incident last year.

In October 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart tug had just unloaded its fuel cargo in Ketchikan.

Its distress calls to the Canadian Coast Guard were obtained and published by Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper.

About 29,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled. A nearby clam fishery used by the Heiltsuk First Nations tribe remains shut down 13 months later.

Canadian authorities had been criticized over a delayed response and slow cleanup efforts.

When last Sunday's close call involved the tug Jake Shearer and a 430-foot barge loaded with fuel, there was renewed outcry and concern.

Harley Marine Services, the parent company of the tug operator, isn't commenting, citing the open investigation by Transport Canada.

But in Bella Bella, a community of 1,600, people have been listening intently to chatter on the VHF radio and talking to crew members and Coast Guard officials.

"The actual tug and barge was hit by a rogue wave, causing one of the pegs that holds the tug to the barge to break and that led the crew to release themselves completely from the barge because it was putting the tug in danger," said William Housty, the Heiltsuk First Nations' incident commander in Bella Bella.

Two crew members were reportedly able to jump from the tug to the loose barge to drop its anchor.

Otherwise it could've run aground or broken up on a rock pile that Housty said he could see from the air just meters away.

"We've had these two incidents in the last year; it's really kind of magnified these sort of tugs and put into question whether these tugs are actually capable of handling the seas in this part of the world," Housty said.

In the wake of the wreck last year, restrictions on barge traffic had recently been tightened by Canadian authorities.

The tug Jake Shearer and its barge were apparently heeding new navigation rules on transiting fuel vessels that required them to avoid certain narrow straits in the area.

"The American tug and barge industry have been going up and down this coast for over a century," said Kevin Obermeyer, chief executive officer of the Pacific Pilotage Association, which regulates marine navigation on Canada's west coast.

The association routinely issues waivers to the fuel companies so their vessels aren't required to have a Canadian pilot on board as is required of other heavy vessels.

Since the Exxon Valdez spill, the U.S. requires vessels carrying petroleum cargo to have an approved contingency plan for spills and fires. Canada doesn't.

"The oversight that we do is make sure that the officers and the crew on those vessels have been going through these waters sufficiently to have the experience and knowledge to do it safely," Obermeyer said.

But critics say that might not be enough.

The Canadian government has proposed banning full-sized tankers in the Inside Passage even though they don't use that route.

Tugs and barges hauling fuel — like the Jake Shearer and Nathan E. Stewart — would remain exempt.

"We're banning something that doesn't occur, but we have all this marine traffic passing through our Canadian waters and Canadians are saying, 'Look, we're taking all this risk but we're getting no benefit,' " said Joe Spears, a retired maritime law attorney who runs an oceans consultancy in Vancouver. "This is pretty much a live issue and it affects Alaska and I think we need to sit down and talk about this because of all of Southeast Alaska depends on these tugs and barges to get the refined petroleum product."

There's no tracking how much fuel is shipped north to Southeast Alaska.

One industry estimate offers an estimated 50 million gallons annually.

But there's no hard data kept by the U.S. or Canadian authorities.

Fuel retailers in Southeast Alaska say the loss of fuel deliveries by barge would be unthinkable.

"Depending on how cold it is, we can haul up to 400,000 gallons of heating fuel in a month or more," said Phil Isaac of Ike's Fuel in Douglas. His family has owned the company that trucks heating fuel around the capital city for more than a half-century. "There's just no way we could haul that in. The barges can bring up a million gallons at a time. There's no way to replace that."

People in Bella Bella understand that — they get their fuel delivered the same way.

"There's people along the coast that live here and depend on the resources in this area for survival," said Housty in Bella Bella. "To put all that at stake for the movement of fossil fuels is very difficult for people to fathom."

Four days after the incident, Canadian authorities admitted they'd grossly under-stated the amount of fuel carried in the barge.

The vessel was carrying about 3.7 million gallons of diesel and gas – more than three times what had previously been disclosed.

The confusion, the agency said, came from mistaking liters for gallons.

This article was republished with permission from KTOO Public Media.