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All’s not well when oil spills

It is comforting to know that, if there is an oil spill in the bays or in the offshore of Newfoundland Labrador, we need not fret because it’s all ‘covered’!

In a nutshell, we have tens of millions of dollars of response equipment in a warehouse in Mount Pearl and if an oil spill happens the equipment can be deployed and operated by as few as 40 trained responders. 

That should make us all feel cozy and warm, yes? Before we get real comfortable we should remind ourselves of two recent events.

In Notre Dame Bay, the ‘Manolis L’ sank in 1985 with 500 tons of fuel on board and sat there, out of sight and out of mind, until the spring of 2013 before it sprang a leak. Shortly after the oil became visible, people were deployed to the site and equipment was used to assess and install patches to cover the leaks. Even after much effort there have been reports the oil is still floating to the surface. We clearly haven’t got this one covered.

In Sept-Iles, Que., during the overnight of Aug. 31, there were 5,000 liters of oil spilled into Sept-Iles Bay. According to media reports, there have been up to 20 boats and 200 people deployed to clean up the spilled oil. In summary, there were about 32 barrels of oil spilled into the bay and nearly 60 days later, 20 boats using sophisticated and specialized equipment and with 200 people deployed they still had not been able to cover it.

Should we be fretting yet?  

Given that we still haven’t fixed a problem that began nearly 30 years ago when a ship sank, and given that there were 200 people deployed to respond to a 32 barrel spill in Quebec, and given that if an oil tanker with tens of thousands of barrels of oil sinks today we will only have about 90 Newfoundland and Labrador responders trained and available, we probably should be fretting don’t you think?

But wait, there’s more.

The two recent events clearly should give us some reason for concern if a spill happens close to shore. But what if a spill occurs offshore?

Two hundred miles offshore the sea-state is far different than it is, for example, inside Kelly’s Island in Conception Bay. Chances are the tens of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment will be ineffective in the rough open ocean. The only option open to us to cover the spill will be to use chemical dispersants.

Dispersants are chemicals that are sprayed on a surface oil slick to break the oil down into smaller droplets so that they are more readily and quickly able to mix with the water. Dispersants do not reduce the amount of oil that had been spilled and remaing in the environment but simply pushes the spilled oil underwater. The action of deploying the chemical dispersant will see to it that the oil spill is not visible, but it also means that we will now have both the chemical dispersant and the spilled oil into the ocean environment. Both are toxic to things biological.

Why would we deliberately release a toxic chemical into the environment? The answer is simple: The chemical sinks the spilled oil so it is out of sight and out of mind. We didn’t respond to the ‘Manolis L’ site in Notre Dame Bay until the oil became visible. As has happened elsewhere, there will come a time when we will deliberately spill chemical dispersants on top of spilled oil to ensure that the oil sinks and becomes invisible. If it’s not visible, it’s covered!  

Speaking of things visual, most of us are disgusted at the sight of sea birds suffering and dying as a result of being covered by sticky black toxic oil! Responders to the ‘Manolis L’ site deployed noise makers to keep seabirds away from the oil, and in the offshore chemical dispersants will be used to keep oil away from seabirds. To our credit we try and protect creatures with feathers but what about creatures with fins?

We will intentionally spill chemicals into the environment and let them sink along with spilled crude oil. We will knowingly and acceptingly disperse these two toxic substances into the space where creatures with fins feed, migrate and reproduce. Fortunately though, and unlike sea birds, creatures with fins are beneath the waves, out of sight, and therefore quite easily out of mind. 

Since the probability of creatures with fins being covered with something other than water is quite real, shouldn’t we be just a little more proactive? Shouldn’t we be demanding that things that are not visible are given the same attention as those that are visible?

Or maybe we should just simply continue to sleep quietly knowing that someone has it ‘covered’?

Harvey Jarvis, projects manager


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