After Kirby’s Oil Spill: The Criminal Conviction and Sentencing

Kirby Corporation sentenced in Bella Bella for 2016 oil spill in Heiltsuk territory 

When an articulated-tug-barge operated by Houston-based Kirby Corporation grounded and sank in 2016 outside Gale Pass, near Bella Bella, it spilled oil in the waters of one of Heiltsuk Nation’s major food harvesting areas. Almost three years later, on July 16, 2019, Kirby — one of the world’s largest tank barge operators — faced sentencing for three offences under Canadian federal law.

Kirby was initially charged with nine criminal counts. Under a plea agreement with the Crown, Kirby pleaded guilty to three criminal counts arising under the Fisheries Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act (for depositing a deleterious substance in areas frequented by fish and migratory birds), and the Pilotage Act (for proceeding in a compulsory pilotage area not under the conduct of a licensed pilot or the holder of a pilotage certificate).

The sentencing hearing took place in Bella Bella, close to where the grounding and spill occurred. Surrounded by the Heiltsuk community, the court sentencing Kirby using a sentencing circle, with Kirby and its representatives sitting alongside Heiltsuk chiefs, first responders, and elected councilors. The court and community members listened to several powerful victim impact statements by Heiltsuk community members, including Chief Marilyn Slett, who described the cultural, financial, ecological, and emotional impacts caused by the spill.

The court imposed about $2.9 million in fines on Kirby. But apart from $5,000 which will go to the Crown, the fine payments will go to Canada’s Environmental Damages Fund. The court recommended that fine monies be used for the purpose of fish habitat conservation, protection, and/or restoration in the central coast area of British Columbia.

While the criminal processes against Kirby have now concluded, Heiltsuk’s civil claims against Kirby continue. Kirby seeks an environmental impact assessment, which has yet to occur even three years after the spill, and full compensation for their losses.

For more about the sentencing, and Heiltuk’s fight for full compensation against Kirby, see this update by the Houston Chronicle here, and CBC’s report here.

For Heiltsuk’s open letter to Kirby, or to support Heiltsuk, go here.

Lisa C. Fong, Michael Ng and Kimberly Webber