Oil leak “probably” from abandoned wells: Environment Minister

As the provincial government moves to hire a consultant to determine the nature and possible clean-up of oil leaking into Port au Port Bay, opinions over the urgency of the situation vary while a petition calling for immediate remediation garners 25,000 signatures.

It’s been almost two years since it was first reported that oil was leaking into Port au Port Bay near abandoned oil well-heads on Shoal Point, which local residents say may have been a contributing factor to the collapse of local scallop populations.

Last week provincial Environment and Conservation Minister Dan Crummell told The Independent the government has been working with other provincial and federal departments to determine the nature of the seepage, and that based on observations so far it appears the oil is “probably” coming from the wells, but that the government is hiring a consultant to determine with certainty where the oil is coming from and whether or not it is possible to clean it up.

In April 2014 Boswarlos resident Katherine Hoskins wrote then-Environment Minister Joan Shea to ask that the province recommend to the federal government that the Shoal Point area be added to a national list of toxic sites requiring remediation, which Canada earmarked almost $4 billion for.

Crummell said that the government inspected the site at the time, but that they “weren’t sure exactly where the oil was coming from — if it was natural or if it was seeping from old wells.

“So we got more evidence that in fact there probably is some seepage coming from some oil wells.”

On Friday the government put out a request for proposals and Crummell said his department approached four possible consultants with expertise in oil and environmental site work to assess the seepage at Shoal Point and other areas where oil may be leaking into the environment. The companies have until July 3 to submit their proposals and whichever is awarded the contract will have four weeks to submit a final report, Crummell said.

“We’re asking the consultant to formulate and implement a program to ascertain if the oil seepage is naturally-occurring, or if it’s related to abandoned oil wells from exploration activity that happened in the past,” the minister explained. “We’re looking for technical advice and recommendations to prevent its continued release.

“So we’re talking about possible clean-up, prevention of further discharge, additional environmental site assessment if necessary. That will be determined once the consultant’s report has been complete and reviewed by us.”

Crummell also said in its research the government determined the three visible, deteriorating oil well-heads where oil has been observed are from wells drilled in the 1890s. Since that time dozens of other wells have been drilled in the area, where Crummell and other government officials have stressed in recent weeks naturally-occurring oil seeps have been recorded since the early 19th century.

“The first step right now is to make the best possible determination of exactly what the nature of the occurrence is,” said Crummell. “Saying that, if indeed [the contractor] finds out through their site work that there is a leak that’s coming from well-head casings and there’s something we can do immediately, we’re asking them to tell us right away and we will deal with it immediately. We will not wait for the results of the report.”

Government response not good enough: resident

Kippens resident Joe Wiseman told The Independent on Sunday the government’s actions are not good enough and are too little, too late.

“Nero fiddled while Rome burned — so the action I think of the provincial government for the past two years are similar to what Crummell is doing right now,” he said. “He’s referring the issue to a consultant. He’s not dealing with the problem.

“Right now, as you and I speak, oil is leaking into Port au Port Bay. It leaked into Port au Port Bay all last night. It will leak into Port au Port Bay all tonight. When we get up tomorrow, it will still be leaking into Port au Port Bay,” Wiseman continued.

“In British Columbia, the maximum response time for a spill under 150 tons is six hours. It’s not ‘hire a consultant’ and wait until the consultant does his report, which by the way he will have up to four weeks to do. So for those whole four weeks the oil will be leaking into Port au Port Bay.”

Last Wednesday Wiseman started a Change.org petition calling on the provincial government to “immediately clean up abandoned well sites leaking oil and destroying [the] fishery at Shoal Point, Port au Port Bay.”

So far more than 25,000 people, from within and outside the province, have added their names.

“The different levels of government who have been contacted in this matter and have done nothing, may, in essence, have committed acts of criminal negligence, particularly if anyone in the area becomes ill,” Victor Muise, a Mi’kmaq elder living in Stephenville, said in the online petition. “These governing bodies could find themselves on the wrong end of a class action law suit, if they do not act with more caution and concern.”

Opposition parties have been equally critical of the PCs over their handling of the problem.

“MHA Scott Reid and I pressed the Minister of Environment in the House of Assembly on this very matter,” Liberal MHA and Environment and Conservation Critic Chris Mitchelmore wrote in the comments section of the Change.org petition on Monday. “I will along with my colleagues continue to add pressure to the Provincial Government to live up to their environmental responsibilities. If you get additional information that may be helpful, please forward it to my email.”

Liberal MHA for St. George's--Stephenville East Scott Reid (centre) visited Shoal Point on June 20. Photo by Aiden Mahoney.
Liberal MHA for St. George’s–Stephenville East Scott Reid (centre) visited Shoal Point on June 20. One of the abandoned oil well-heads can be seen in the background. Photo by Aiden Mahoney.

Reid, Liberal member for St. George’s—Stephenville East, told The Independent earlier this month he was concerned that the abandoned wells, which stick several feet out of the ground, “would be allowed to deteriorate without any sort of monitoring it seems by the provincial or federal government.

“And it has to give you concerns about future developments as well, and what type of oversight would be given for those wells,” he said.

NDP Environment Critic George Murphy also raised the issue in the legislature, saying the problem of orphaned wells will grow if fracking is permitted in the province, and that there’s no one to hold accountable if the companies that drilled the wells no longer exist when oil is discovered leaking out of the ground and into the environment.

“There is obviously cleanup needed but the companies have long gone,” Murphy said in the House of Assembly on June 11. “We do not have a company to point the finger at, Mr. Speaker. The question for this government is: Who pays, and when does the cleanup happen?”

On Friday Crummell said there are provincial and federal laws that ensure the “polluter pays” for oil spills and other forms of industrial activities causing pollution. If the polluter does not exist, he said depending on their level of urgency cases may be added to the list of 176 “impacted sites that we have identified on the Island right now that we’re looking at in terms of liability.”

In his 2013 report, Auditor General Terry Paddon called for the government to evaluate contaminated sites and identify any liabilities and estimated costs associated with those sites.

According to the report, at the time “the province’s financial statements include an environmental liability of $28.3 million as at March 31, 2013, relating to 15 sites.”

The new list of impacted sites was due March 31 of this year, according to the report, but Crummell said the government is still working on it.

“That work is ongoing now and we expect to get some feedback at some point in time,” he said, explaining that not all of the 176 impacted sites the government has identified will be considered liabilities, but that the Department of Finance’s Comptroller General will be “confirming which sites are liabilities and what government is responsible for to clean up.”

The report, which Crummell said is due to be made public this fall, will outline what the province must do in terms of remediating contaminated sites deemed liabilities.

A new standard for liabilities of contaminated sites came into effect April 1, 2014, under which, among other criteria—all of which must be met—it “must be expected that future economic benefits will be given up,” and that “a reasonable estimate of the amount can be made.”

Even “small amounts” could negatively impact the Gulf ecosystem

Crummell said Friday that the federal government has a “constitutional responsibility…for any spills that happen offshore in the water,” but that the province is “not focused right now on who is responsible.”

The oil leaking at Shoal Point is “unique in a couple ways,” he explained.

“When [the] wells were drilled back in the 1890s…they were on land. And now they’re under the high tide mark. So it’s a unique situation, so right now we’re not going to get into an arm wrestle over who’s responsible. We’re taking the lead and we’re going to find out exactly what’s going on.”

Wiseman said regardless of whose responsibility it is to clean up the oil, and regardless of whether the oil is coming from the wells or is naturally-occurring, the problem needs to be addressed immediately.

“There’s oil leaking into Port au Port Bay. It needs to be stopped. There are scallop beds in Port au Port Bay, there’s a lobster fishery in Port au Port Bay. The water is used by citizens all around that bay. What does it matter if it’s a natural occurrence or a manmade occurrence? It needs to be stopped.

“So a six hour response time in British Columbia becomes an almost two-year response time in Newfoundland, and the first response is to do a study,” he continued. “To me it makes no sense. If the livelihood of the citizens, if the health of the ecosystem that exists in Port au Port Bay and impacts upon the Gulf of St. Lawrence — if that is endangered by a natural cause or a manmade cause, it still needs to be dealt with. That’s my position, and I think it’s a fairly rational position.”

Last February marine ecologist Irene Novaczek said in a presentation at Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook that the Gulf of St. Lawrence is in a state of crisis and on its way to joining hundreds of other marine ecosystems around the world as a “dead zone”.

 What does it matter if it’s a natural occurrence or a manmade occurrence? It needs to be stopped. — Joe Wiseman, Kippens resident

She said industrial activity in the Gulf is already having detrimental impacts on the northern cod and other marine species and that fracking or offshore oil development in or on the shores of the Gulf would be “dangerous and inappropriate.”

The Gulf of St. Lawrence, which includes Port au Port Bay and the entire west coast of the Island, has been recognized since the 1970s as the “most productive marine ecosystem in all of Canada,” Novaczek explained, and is “one of the top estuary ecosystems globally, as spawning and nursing and feeding grounds for many species…including a fairly lengthy list of species that are at risk or endangered.”

Crummell indicated, however, that based on what government officials have seen so far of the oil leaking at Shoal Point, it is “seeping is very small amounts.

“We’re talking very small amounts — too small to deploy a clean-up spill response at this point in time,” he said. “Because the amount that we have observed, and all the evidence that we have seen so far, [indicates] that it’s not recoverable, so you could not deploy pollution control or equipment to recover that oil because, again, the amount observed is not recoverable.

“If there was something major going on here we’d be dealing with this in a different way. But right now we’re trying to find out exactly what is happening. So we’re obviously spending money to find out what’s going on and see if we can get a solution to this.”

Novaczek said in her presentation that even small amounts of petroleum spilled into the Gulf could have devastating impacts on the larger ecosystem.

“Chronic exposure to very minute amounts of toxic petroleum products and radioactive isotopes and the other stuff that comes up when you do this kind of activity is enough to alter the behaviour of things, so they die more easily — they can’t defend themselves, they get cancer, they get immune diseases, they have premature mortality,” she said.

“There’s a lot that goes on that we don’t see with our eyes, from our vantage point on shore.”

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