The 500 tons of oil in the sunken ship in Notre Dame Bay is a disaster waiting to happen, and one the Canadian government has officially decided to ignore
On Saturday, March 15, 2014 the 183-metre John 1 ran aground off the coast from the southwestern Newfoundland community of Rose Blanche. The Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Earl Grey attempted to assist the stricken vessel and the CCGS Pierre Radisson soon joined her. The Coast Guard’s Environmental Response Centre was quickly activated, with a mobile command centre and response equipment ready to be deployed. So far, the response has been rapid, comprehensive and appropriate. The same level of attention is needed to deal with the much older but far more dangerous situation of the Manolis L.
The Manolis L was a cargo ship carrying more than 500 tons of petroleum (fuel oil and diesel) when she sank off Change Islands in 1985 on the Northeast Coast. Until recently, the ship and its contents were largely forgotten – literally out of sight, out of mind. That is, until spring 2013 when local residents began seeing oil slicks and, worse still, oiled birds. As with the John 1, the Canadian Coast Guard responded appropriately.
Using a remotely operated submersible, they found cracks in the rusting hull of the Manolis L. By July, they had temporarily mended the cracks using neoprene and a cofferdam. I say temporarily because by December it was clear that these had failed. So in January 2014 they installed another cofferdam. To the surprise of local residents and experts, the Coast Guard declared this was the “long term solution.” This decision was echoed at the political level when Randy Kamp, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, stated that the “long-term solution is for the cofferdam and the instruments that are in place, and the inspections that will be done will continue to monitor this. If it continues to work, that will be the solution, but if at some point it is no longer working, other actions will have to be taken.”
There are a number of problems with Kamp’s statement, not the least of which is that these repairs have a 100 per cent chance of failing. In the words of Kevin Stowbridge, a naval architect, “There’s a lot of oil on board and it’s going to come out.” Another problem is the inferred attitude towards the issue. To me, it’s kind of like replacing a broken window with cardboard and duct tape and then accepting that fix as permanent. Sure, it will keep the wind out for a while, but the first real rain will make short work of the cardboard and tape. Unless it’s made from some previously unknown indestructible material, the hull of the Manolis L will rust away and the 500 tons of petroleum will flood the region, causing a natural catastrophe the likes of which we have not seen in our province in living memory.
The Labrador Current, originating in the North, sweeps down until it washes the coastline of Notre Dame Bay, then runs to the east – straight towards some of the most important seabird colonies in the world.
More than 1,000,000 seabirds nest on islands that lie in the path of the current. Indeed, the current is why these colonies are where they are. The cold, rich waters of the Labrador Current carry the food necessary to sustain such a convergence of bird life. There are literally hundreds of seabird colonies along the coast of eastern Newfoundland, but the largest and closest include Little Fogo Island, the Wadham Islands and, of course, the crowning jewel of Newfoundland seabird colonies: Funk Island.
Funk Island is protected as an Ecological Reserve and for good reason. It is one of the largest Common Murre colonies in the world. These less colourful relatives of the Atlantic Puffin nest on the same rock as the extinct Great Auk, thought by some researchers to have enabled the exploration of eastern North America by providing a fresh source of food for early European explorers. (One of my compulsions is to look at old maps to find Funk Island. It is invariably represented as it was an essential stop over. Hungry for fresh food after six to eight weeks crossing the North Atlantic? Simply anchor off Funk Island, run a plank to the flat granite and herd the flightless Great Auk into the ship’s hold.)
Anyway, an oil slick near this protected area would be devastating. Seabirds have their own strategy for survival which has largely been very successful. They live a long time (some for more than 20 years) but only have one or two chicks per year. If food supplies are low, for example, and their nesting efforts fail, there’s always next year. While normally a strength, this strategy makes seabirds particularly vulnerable to a catastrophic event. If there is a large die off of adults, a colony can simply cease to exist. And, we know one thing for certain: oil kills birds. The birds’ feather structure, maintained by careful grooming, creates a waterproof barrier. A tiny drop of oil, no larger than a dime, will destroy the integrity of that barrier (e.g. it only takes one hole to make a rubber book useless). Birds are not invulnerable to the cold. Once their protection against the North Atlantic has been lost, they most often perish.
Which makes the decision to not remove the petroleum from the Manolis L so puzzling. The strategy of waiting until more oil leaks out to do anything else means that seabirds will die. As seabirds are the responsibility of the Government of Canada, one would think that a strategy would be devised that did not depend on killing seabirds.
Ballam’s Law states that attention is inversely proportional to the distance – the further away you are, the less attention you get. But I’m not sure it applies in this case. In 1946, the Brig.-Gen. M.G. Zalinski sank 100 kilometres south of Prince Rupert with 600 tons of petroleum on board. After nearly 70 years, the Government of Canada decided to put a permanent end to the threat of oil pollution and remove the oil. The effort is expected to cost $50 million. That’s a lot of money. But decision makers ought to remember – it’s not their money, it’s ours. And it’s our natural heritage in the form of hundreds of thousands of seabirds that’s at risk.
Furthermore, according to the Canadian Coast Guard, no less than three funds exist to deal with this sort of situation. The Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund is one example. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We don’t even know how much it would cost to remove the oil because there has been no feasibility study conducted. To me, this seems indefensible. At the very least, monies from one of the funds could be used to study the situation and provide various recovery scenarios, including cost estimates. I might cover a broken window with cardboard and tape, but I’ll quickly find out how much it’s going to cost to replace the window.
I have focused on the real threat to seabird populations along the Northeast Coast but there are many, many more reasons to take a more comprehensive approach to the Manolis L, including wintering sea ducks, marine mammals, the commercial and recreational fisheries, tourism, coastal salt marshes and, most importantly, the local residents. Maybe a paradigm shift is needed in certain circles to move forward. Imagine for a minute that the Manolis L sank last Saturday (think John 1). Now respond accordingly.