Oil leaking from shipwreck threatens small Newfoundland community

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CHANGE ISLANDS, NL – Larry Hurley will never forget what he saw in 2013.

The shorelines – the harbour – his community – coated with oil.

“It was… frightful… because you knew what it was,” said Hurley, a commercial fisherman on Change Islands, a tiny community off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland.

READ MORE: Hundreds of shipwrecks pose environmental threat to Canada’s coasts

“It’s oil. And you know oil.”

“We had those ducks there by the hundreds, oiled birds up on the rocks, perishing.”

Birds in the water near Change Islands, Newfoundland. Shelley Reid
Oil slicks near Change Islands, Newfoundland. Shelley Reid
Oil slicks near Change Islands, Newfoundland.
Oil slicks near Change Islands, Newfoundland. Shelley Reid
A seal lays on the shore near Change Islands, Newfoundland. Shelley Reid
Near change Islands, Newfoundland. Shelley Reid
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Near change Islands, Newfoundland. Shelley Reid

The source of the oil according to residents: a freighter called the Manolis L.

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In 1985, the Manolis L sank after it ran aground near Change Islands.

READ MORE: Ship that sank in 1985 likely source of small oil slicks off Newfoundland

When it went down, the vessel was carrying more than 500,000 litres of fuel, most of it a highly toxic, heavy oil known as Bunker C.

The Manolis L – and the oil — remained underwater until 2013.

WATCH BELOW: Underwater footage of the Manolis L – a shipwreck off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland

Click to play video: 'EXTRA: An Oil Spill a Day' EXTRA: An Oil Spill a Day
EXTRA: An Oil Spill a Day – Jan 20, 2016

Federal government stops leaking

The Manolis L was damaged and began leaking after a major storm in 2013.

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According to the Department and Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), “there were no reports of oil pollution at the site until an intense storm system in the area generated strong sub-surface ocean currents.”

The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) – overseen by DFO – discovered cracks in the hull of the ship, each leaking unknown quantities of oil.

Instead of removing the remaining oil, DFO patched up whatever hull damage it could and used a metal device – called a cofferdam – to cover a hull breech that couldn’t be fixed.

A cofferdam is placed in the water near the site of the Manolis L. Department of Fisheries and Oceans

DFO said in an email response that as of October 2015 more than 3,600 litres of oil had been captured and removed by the cofferdam. (In 2014, the CCG replaced the original cofferdam after oil leaked out.)

Authorities need to act soon

Naval architect Kevin Strowbridge spent a year studying the Manolis L.

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According to the study, parts of the hull are 88 per cent decayed.

The situation, he believes, is urgent.

“It wouldn’t take very much force to collapse that hull,” he says. “This is a critical situation.”

Part of the problem, he says, is the proximity of the Manolis L to Change Islands.

“The seriousness comes from the potential impacts because she’s… so close to the shoreline,” says Strowbridge. “Any oil spill in that area is going to have catastrophic effects on the environment.”

DFO claims no oil has been detected in over a year. An in-depth technical assessment is planned for later this year, but as of now there are no plans to permanently remove the remaining oil.

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Manolis not the only problem ship

The Manolis L isn’t a unique situation.

In the last three years, DFO has spent close to $30 million cleaning up spills from historical wrecks like the Manolis L in Newfoundland ($2 million), the SS Arrow in Nova Scotia ($1.3 million), and the MG Zalinski in B.C ($24 million).

READ MORE: Cleanup of oil from sunken ship near Prince Rupert wraps up

16×9 wanted to know just how many other ships could pose a threat to the environment in Canadian waters so we asked the federal government whether it tracks these ships. But in an email response from DFO it said, “the Government of Canada does not hold an inventory of sunken vessels in waters under Canadian jurisdiction.”

In other words, the Canadian government doesn’t track ships.

So 16×9 analyzed shipwreck data going back to the beginning of the 20th century. Of the thousands of ships that have sunk in the last 100 or so years, we identified more than 700 possible at-risk vessels in 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.

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Click here to view map »

“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.”

16×9 wanted to know what the federal government planned to do in light of these findings but interview requests with DFO minister Hunter Tootoo were denied.

In an email DFO said, “Incidents involving sunken vessels are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. In the event that a sunken vessel begins to discharge pollutants… the [Canadian Coast Guard] will confirm the source and take the necessary measures to stop the discharge.”
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Change Islands residents like Larry Hurley hope the Manolis L will be cleaned up permanently before it’s too late.

“It needs to be cleaned up – simple, plain as that. It needs to be cleaned up. They’re playing with our livelihoods.”

16×9’s “An Oil Spill a Day” airs Saturday, Jan. 23, 2015 at 7pm.

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