A 16×9 investigation has discovered there are hundreds of sunken ships in Canadian waters, some of which have leaked oil in the past and are at risk of doing so again.
Besides the environmental concerns, there are also financial hazards dealing with these shipwrecks. The federal government has spent close to $30 million over the past few years cleaning up spills from multiple ships that have corroded under Canadian waters.
Based on available information 16×9 mapped out at-risk ships in Canadian waters. The coordinates on the map are only approximations; much of the data from the early 20th century was done prior to GPS and was sometimes incomplete.
16×9 started asking questions after looking into the case of the Manolis L, a large freighter that sank in 1985 near Change Islands, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland.
The Manolis L was carrying more than 500,000 litres of fuel, most of it a highly toxic, heavy oil known as bunker C. According to residents, some of the oil wound up on shores and killed marine and wildlife after it began leaking in 2013.
Canada doesn’t keep track of sunken ships
The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), overseen by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), is the lead agency in marine oil cleanups.
16×9 went to DFO, Transport Canada, and Environment Canada to find out just how many at-risk ships there are in Canadian waters.
“The Government of Canada does not hold an inventory of sunken vessels in waters under Canadian jurisdiction,” DFO responded in an email.
So 16×9 looked at shipwreck data going back to the beginning of the 20th century (ships began to convert to fuel oil around this time). Other screening criteria included: vessels made of steel or other durable material, vessels that could be carrying fuel as cargo and anything over 100 gross tons (GT).
WATCH BELOW: Underwater footage of the Manolis L – a shipwreck off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland
Based on these criteria, 16×9 found 182 at-risk ships over 100 GT; 534 vessels had missing information, including weight and amount of fuel on-board but were also considered at-risk.
In total, 716 possible at-risk vessels were identified in Canadian waters.
“We simply don’t know what we’re dealing with because there isn’t enough information,” says Dionysios Rossi, a maritime lawyer.
“Each of those vessels could constitute a potential environmental hazard. It certainly is an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Chronic spills kill wildlife, marine life
Slow spills, known as chronic spills, are harder to detect but can cause major environmental problems, argues seabird ecologist Ian Jones.
Jones says chronic spills, especially from corroded sunken ships, are potentially more harmful than if a single major oil event like an Exxon Valdez were to occur.
He says seabirds are especially sensitive to oil pollution.
“People are almost more concerned about litter on the side of the highway because they notice that than they are maybe about thousands or hundreds of thousands of seabirds dying out at sea that they can’t see,” said Jones.
In 2002, a chronic oil spill was determined to be coming from a historical wreck – the SS Jacob Luckenbach – off the coast of California. It took authorities decades to figure out where the oil was coming from. Over that time millions of birds were affected.
Taxpayer pays for cleanup
The cost to clean up oil from these historical shipwrecks can be expensive.
What’s more, it’s the taxpayer who ends up paying.
If a decades-old sunken ship begins leaking oil, the shipowner is on the hook for the cleanup. But if the shipowner is unable to pay and the shipowner’s insurance runs out, more money is available in liability funds such as Canada’s Ship-Source Oil Pollution Fund (SOPF).
The SOPF, formerly known as the Maritime Pollutions Claims Fund, was paid into by various industries including oil companies and power generating authorities in the 1970s. Today, the fund collects interest monthly by the Minister of Finance (The maximum liability of the SOPF for all claims from one oil spill is $165,837,463).
One major problem though: SOPF claims must be made within five years of the ship sinking to qualify.
“So, if you’ve got a historical wreck that is decades old…you would not be able to survive the five-year limitation period on the original event happening,” Rossi said.
In the last three years, DFO alone has spent close to $30 million cleaning up spills from historical wrecks.
- The Manolis L, a freighter off the coast of Newfoundland that started leaking oil in 2013 ($2 million to date).
- The SS Arrow, one of Nova Scotia’s worst oil spills in 1970 that began leaking again in 2015 ($1.3 million to date).
- The MG Zalinski, a U.S. Second World War army transport ship that went down off the coast of B.C. in 1946 ($24 million)
16×9 asked repeatedly for an interview with DFO Minister Hunter Tootoo in light of these findings but the requests were denied.
16×9’s “An Oil Spill a Day” airs Saturday, Jan. 23, 2015 at 7pm.
Interactive map by Max Hartshorn. Infographic by Benjamin Simpson.