The last season of the cofferdam?

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There are other sunken ships in Canadian waters that are labelled risks—ships besides the Manolis L., the one at the centre of this story. There are hundreds of other ships left at the bottom of Canadian waters, with names like Scout, Genie G., Arrel, M.F. Therese, the Northern Osprey, Dorothy B., and Mink. Sea Alert, Danny Boy, and Atlantic Charger, too. Many of them pose the same kind of environmental risks as the Manolis L.

If you asked biologist and Memorial University professor Dr. Ian Jones, he’d say that’s what this article is really about. He’d say that what I should write about here isn’t just the Manolis L., with its fuel tanks deteriorating at the bottom of the Notre Dame Bay, off Fogo Island and Change Islands. He’d tell you that this story is about what biologists say is an ever-increasing risk of oil spills in the Canadian waters, that this story is about the threats of oil spills and the way the government responds ineffectively—or does not respond at all.

Jones might say that this story about the Manolis L. is as much about what happened in November of last year, when the bulk carrier Baby Leeyn was disabled and drifting off Cape St. Mary’s, carrying 250 tonnes of heavy fuel on board. Or that it is about the decision that led to and followed the close brush between a floating oil platform and an iceberg in March 2017. The SeaRose apparently failed to follow proper safety protocol when an iceberg came too close, putting 84 workers and 340,000 barrels of crude oil at risk 350 kilometres east of St. John’s in the Jeanne d’Arc Basin. The suspension put in place by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board was lifted by the end of January 2018, after Husky Oil promised to build public and community trust in their offshore operations.

“There has been a history of vessels sinking with large quantities of oil on them and government dithering,” said Jones. “That’s the bigger story on this: if the government says it’s okay and safe to approve pipelines and to be moving quantities of hydrocarbons, well that’s kind of undermined by cases of where there is oil out there they aren’t willing to clean up. They don’t seem to be acknowledging oil spills and risks.”

The Manolis L. sank more than thirty years ago. If all goes as planned, there’s one last season of icebergs and one last winter of storms for the cracked hull and the deteriorating fuel tanks to weather. One last season of the cofferdam. Because until the oil is removed, a cofferdam is still all that’s between the fuel tanks and disaster.

If you turned a glass upside-down in the water and put sandbags on it, that’s a cofferdam.


Talk to any of the locals about Manolis L. and the first thing they’ll tell you about is the cofferdam. So I needed to know: What is a cofferdam?

I wanted to know because it’s the only barrier between the deteriorating walls of the oil and diesel tanks in the sunken freighter and the shallow waters of the Notre Dame Bay.

The bit of reading I did told me that a cofferdam prevents and contain oil and diesel from leaking into the ocean. I imagined some sleek, high-tech piece of equipment that wouldn’t be out of place on next century’s space stations.

Memorial University biology professor Ian Jones offered a very different picture. “A bag of sand over a leaking wreck,” is how he described a cofferdam.

Kevin Strowbridge, a naval architect with the Marine Institute said that “if you turned a glass upside-down in the water and put sandbags on it, that’s a cofferdam.”

A fact sheet from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans tells us that “a cofferdam usually consists of a double row of sand bags with plastic placed between the rows.”

I looked at the photos on the DFO website, showing a cofferdam being lifted out of the Manolis L. and replaced. The cofferdam that is being used to contain the oil leaking out of cracks in tanks in the ship looks like a metal dome. It appears inflexible and rusted. Descriptions from a number of reports tell me that this kind of cofferdam is often held in place with sandbags.

“It’s not very effective. Because you get repeated leaks. And we’ve got a leak going on right now,” said Jones.

“I haven’t seen any data on the effectiveness, but there’s reports of oil still coming out of the Manolis L. so I guess you can draw your own conclusions there,” said Strowbridge.

A cofferdam was first installed in 2013, after a storm cracked open the hull and oil began leaking in high enough quantities that it became visible. Not long after, a strong current shifted the temporary cofferdam, and more fuel leaked into the bay that year. Oil-covered ducks and seals began washing up in numerous coves to die. Fishers avoided the area to keep their gear from getting ruined by the oil. Since then, the DFO has put another, larger cofferdam over the leak.

Cofferdams are meant to be short-term solutions for a number of reasons. One is that, as the ship rusts, “eventually leakages can become too numerous, or the seepage flow rate can increase to the point where the volume of the cofferdam is inadequate,” Strowbridge wrote in a published study on the Manolis L. situation.

Another reason cofferdams are not long-term solutions to leaking oil is that they can’t hold up to changes in weather or underwater conditions.

“Strong currents could knock it out of place. Icebergs. If an iceberg were to come into that area, an iceberg could spilt the ship in half. That’s one of my biggest fears because of where it’s located, on the north coast. They do get icebergs up there. You know, she is in shallow water. So it’s just a miracle it hasn’t happened yet. It could go tomorrow or it could last another 20 years. We really don’t know. And it’s that uncertainty that actually adds to the risk factor so I call it a high risk shipwreck.” Strowbridge said.

Change Islands, NL/Bojan Fürst photo

When the cofferdam fails, what happens?

“When that vessel starts to break apart, the oil is not going to be released in one go because they are separate tanks and they’re not degrading at the same rate so it’d be an oil spill and it could go a couple of years and you’d have another oil spill and another couple of years and so on. If we have an oil spill this winter because of something, that wouldn’t be the last. That’d be the first of many.”

Strowbridge said that ships of the same type as the Manolis L. generally carry eight tanks.

“It would be a huge disaster. The results would likely be catastrophic for birds,” said Jones.

It’s a risk the government has been aware of for 30 years. Experts had been recommending the removal of the oil for some time, but the federal government hadn’t put any money on the table until now, according to Carolyn Parsons, co-chair of the Manolis L. Citizens Response Committee. She’s originally from Change Islands and is now living in Lewisport.

The current cofferdam hasn’t been containing the oil. More oil has been appearing in the water and fishers have avoided fishing in waters near the sunken ship. The trouble this time, says Parsons, is that they “can’t pinpoint where it’s coming from in the Manolis L. in order to be able to seal that spot.”

Parsons said the recent announcement is a relief. ”An active leak is going on there somewhere and so a chronic oil spill is happening. The Coast Guard—basically because of the weather and not even knowing exactly what is going on—they haven’t been able to address it. So this was a fear of ours and it’s come to be,” she said.

The good news is this: the federal government plans to hire a company to remove the oil from the Manolis L.

Member of Parliament for the Gander area, Scott Simms, called the day of the announcement a “a special day for a lot of people.” Parsons, with the Citizens Response Committee, said “this is good news for everyone.”

The federal government expects to award the contract in spring for the removal of the oil in the summer. If all goes right, this will be the last winter of the cofferdam in Notre Dame Bay.

A fifteen by fifteen centimetre spot—that’s the size of a murre love nest


When does the lifecycle of a common murre begin? With love, according to Sabina Wilhelm, a marine issues biologist with the federal government. Well, Wilhelm is a scientist, so the word she used was “breeding.”

When you ask her about a cofferdam, it’s the murres she thinks about. Because if the cofferdam fails and there’s an oil spill, the murres as a species will be at risk. Wilhelm wrote an entire dissertation about murres when she was in graduate school and she still has a soft spot for the seabirds.

Although Wilhelm uses the word “breeding,” I want to use the word “love” because once a murre chooses a mate, it’s for life.

Sure, murre lovers go their separate ways over the winter, giving each other the kind of space a healthy relationships thrives in. But, come spring, they meet on the same cliff, to the same fifteen by fifteen centimetre spot—that’s the size of a murre love nest. It’s not much, but apparently it’s enough for most of them.

There’s the word “most” in there because divorces do happen, says Wilhelm.

“There’s a slew of papers on divorces and murres. There’s a whole soap opera side of things if you want to read about it,” said Wilhelm.

I am interested in the whole soap opera side of things, but that’s another story. For this story it’s enough to know that love isn’t easy for human or for bird—and that an oil spill would be absolutely catastrophic to a murre’s love and family life.

Murre parents lay just one egg at a time. It’s late April or May when they lay their eggs and once they’ve hatched, it’s a mother and a father working against spring in the North Atlantic.

“They’re foraging all along the Straight shore of Bonavista Bay and you know so around Change Island-Fogo Island-Straight shore. And they’re depending on the capelin, if the capelin’s down they’re in trouble. It’s hard work to be a murre parent. They really work hard. It’s life. It’s life in the North Atlantic,” said Bill Montevecchi, research professor of psychology, biology and ocean sciences at Memorial University.

They’re concentrated on this rock, which means if there’s one oil spill that’s like 80 per cent of the population for the northwest Atlantic.


Have you ever been to a murre colony?

“The first time? It’s shocking. You don’t know how to deal with it,” said Montevecchi.

There’s thousands of birds calling and bustling, wheeling and landing, all on a small piece of rock called Funk Island, from which Montevecchi has conducted research on the birds and the ocean for years.

If the sheer concentration of birds is shocking, so too are their vulnerability to oil spills.

“The other thing that strikes you—and that takes a while too because you go, ‘whoa there’s so many birds’—but they’re concentrated on this rock, which means if there’s one oil spill that’s like 80 per cent of the population for the northwest Atlantic,” said Montevecchi.

The other side of life on the colony is death, too: crushed eggs, chicks carried off by predators, the bodies of birds. But oil isn’t a natural part of a colony’s life or death. An oiled bird is a tragedy, Montevecchi said.

“You know in the most basic sense it’s a responsibility thing. I can remember picking up an oiled bird and it’s just something that just should have never have happened. The animal is completely taken aback by something that we’ve done. Something we’ve put in the environment. It’s an innocence I think that what you see in the animal, it’s an innocence. It’s completely unnecessary,” he said.

There’s this image I can’t get out of my head. I’ve never seen it, but the way all the biologists look when they describe this event—eager and glowing—I think of it as the true beginning of the murre’s life. Life for the murre does not begin with breeding. Life for the murre begins with fledging.

I can see all these chicks gathering on the edge of the the rocks that have been their home all summer. One day all at the same time, they know it’s time.

The chicks can’t fly. They are only about a quarter the size of an adult. They’ve been fed and cared for by both parents all this time and they’ve never been in the water. They can’t fly, but the chicks know they’re ready to go. They gather on the edge of the rocks.

“They flap their wings and there’s this general excitement in the colonies and they’re like okay we’re ready we want to go out there. And then they take this giant leap of faith,” said biologist Sabina Wilhelm.

They jump off the rocks. All of them. And I can’t get over the fact that they don’t know how to fly.

“They basically glide down to the water and the male parent waits for them on the water,” said Wilhelm.

What then? The fathers take their chicks out to sea. The fathers, the biologists repeat for emphasis, the fathers raise the chicks to independence.

Father and chick swim up to Labrador together, because the chick still can’t fly. “And it’s incredible. They stay together for a few months until early winter. And then the chick grows to full size and is independent. But it’s a bit of work. Then getting through the winter you get these really short days, you get storms, you got to get food,” Montevecchi said.

The Manolis is just one example of a ticking time bomb.


Recent decades have brought a lot of changes to oil risks, said biologist Sabina Wilhelm.

A decade ago, surveys of oiled birds between 1998 and 2001 showed that 300,000 seabirds are killed each winter in Atlantic Canada due to operational discharges of oil at sea. That research had an impact on the risks due to chronic pollution, the kind of smaller-scale, illegal, everyday release from vessels, Wilhelm said.

“Legislation was changed to address the issue. More surveillance, more enforcement. Ultimately oiling rates have gone down because we can monitor this through their surveys,” she said.

That’s a success, without a doubt, for activism and for government responsiveness to crisis.

Still, today the risks from larger oil spills have increased dramatically.

“We’re constantly seeing increased threats of a major spill happening with all this offshore development, with more ocean going vessels. So the chronic stuff is reduced but the potential of a major spill happening is increasing all the time. The Manolis is just one example of a ticking time bomb,” she said.

Other risks include a major spill offshore, accidental spills anywhere near the ocean, and vessels getting in trouble, such as the Baby Leeyn that was at risk of grounding off Cape St. Mary last year. Wilhelm talks about other sunken ships carrying oil and fuel that have been at the bottom of the sea for decades, some of them sunk during war.

“The Manolis represents what is potentially a large number of sunken vessels. Some portion of which may contain hydrocarbons that are refined now. As vessel traffic increases and as there’s more offshore oil and gas activity increasing, so those risks are basically increasing,” she said.

The province needs to improve oil spill response and management strategies, concluded  a 2012 research project led by Memorial University’s engineering professor Dr. Bing Chen. He wrote that “in NL, it is particularly urgent and critical to improve the management strategies and decision making effectiveness in offshore oil spill response and countermeasures” and that “new decision making approaches and systems are desired” in this province. Chen was the lead author of the report: From Challenges to Opportunities: Towards Future Strategies and a Decision Support Framework for Oil Spill Preparedness and Response in Offshore Newfoundland and Labrador.

The majority of oil spill response systems and technologies were not designed for the North Atlantic, according to the report, and “spill response operations in ice and open water are fundamentally different.”

The threat of oil spills is a growing concern worldwide, the report says, because of their increasing frequency, the deep, long-term economic impacts, the ecological impacts, and their impacts to human health and way of life.

Since 1997 about “2,703 barrels of drilling fluids and other hydrocarbons have been spilled into the ocean through the about 340 spills reported from NL’s offshore,” according to the report, citing an article published in 2008.

The rapid growth of the oil and gas industry had led to “challenges upon the existing cumbersome legislation and implementation processes as well as the unclear effectiveness of the regulations,” according to the report, which also called for increased efforts to develop more effective legislation and response strategies.” Further, the report suggests that offshore operators should put a fraction of project revenues toward more research and development in these areas, with emphasis on “addressing challenges concerning the unique features of the harsh conditions in NL offshore areas. Investigations on how the existing technologies for oil spills monitoring, forecasting and response perform in these conditions should be conducted to fill the knowledge and technical gaps. Meanwhile, more research and development expenditures should be paid into the innovation of novel technologies customized with the specific characteristic of NL offshore oil spills.”


Professor and biologist Ian Jones takes us back to the broader scope of this story: that he believes that the government has yet to find a way to deal effectively with these increased risks.

“Purely to speculate, I think that the Canadian government is very development-orientated and oil spills are just bad news. So they just want to whisk any discussion of oil spills under the rug as soon as possible, because it’s basically not good politics,” he said.

We can change things, he said. The government of Canada and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador can address other oil spill threats with more urgency and efficiency than they are treating the continuing threat from the sunken Manolis L.

The first time Jones went on a bird watching tour in Newfoundland and Labrador, he witnessed a hint of what the far-reaching, cumulative impacts of an oil spill would look like.

He saw a snowy owl eating a murre that had been oiled.

“So the oiled murre was dead and completely, thickly covered with oil. There was a snowy owl eating it and the snowy owl’s face was covered with oil. So you can imagine what a horrific scene that is. It is a scene that would be repeated over and over and over as the oiled birds wash up from the Manolis L when it breaks up.”


Michelle Porter is the lead editor for The Independent. She holds a BA in Journalism, an MA in Folklore and a PhD in Geography. She is the recipient of 2005 Atlantic Journalism Award for feature writing and the recipient of 2016 NL Arts and Letters award for poetry. She has been long-listed for CBC Poetry prize in 2016 and 2017.