Environment advocates critical of secrecy over Newfoundland’s largest-ever oil spill

Husky Energy executive Trevor Pritchard briefs media on Nov. 20 about the oil spill at the company's SeaRose platform. Ross Lord/Global News

A lack of information and a shortage of visual evidence has people in Newfoundland and Labrador wondering about the true extent of a major oil spill.

Almost a full week since an estimated 250,000 litres of crude oil spilled into the Atlantic Ocean, only one photo from the scene has been released publicly.

The image, a leaking undersea pipe blamed for the spill, was released by Husky Energy, the operator-turned-polluter that’s investigating itself.

It’s a situation that makes no sense to a St. John’s seabird researcher, Ian Jones.

“If you had a serious car accident, you wouldn’t be investigating it yourself. Some independent group, like the police, would be investigating.”

READ MORE: Gap in pipe the cause of Newfoundland’s largest-ever oil spill, which is now impossible to clean up

The spill is the largest ever on Canada’s East Coast.

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It happened last Friday, 350 kilometres southeast of St. John’s, in treacherous weather conditions. The company said Tuesday that it didn’t know why the pipe disconnected from a ship.

Jones says there are millions of seabirds in the spill area at this time of year, including Murrs, Dovekies and the iconic Atlantic Puffins.

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He suspects the death toll is much higher than the one deceased bird being reported by Husky.

“We’ve got a scenario where, potentially, up to a 100,000 or maybe more, of these vulnerable seabirds might die,” Jones said.

The spill is much smaller than either the 473 million litres of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico at the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010 or the nearly 40-million litres that spilled near Alaska from the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

Still, the estimated 250,000 litres is considered the largest spill on Canada’s East Coast — and, Jones says it only takes a little oil to cause a lot of damage.

“A blob about the size of this nickel here, getting onto the breast of one of these birds, is gonna immediately stick to the feathers, and compromise their ability to insulate, and the bird will die,” he said.

The federal government has been quiet about the spill, which happened as Husky attempted to re-start production, in waves almost as high as a three-storey building.

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WATCH: Weak connector caused Husky oil spill off Newfoundland and Labrador coast

Click to play video: 'Weak connector caused Husky oil spill off NL coast'
Weak connector caused Husky oil spill off NL coast

Only now is Natural Resources Canada saying it will “review this incident within the relevant legislative and regulatory frameworks, which ensure Canada maintains high standards for safety, environmental protection, and resource management.”

The regulator, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, says it’s conducting its own “independent” investigation.

But some, including the Sierra Club Foundation’s Gretchen Fitzgerald, say it’s impossible for the board to be impartial.

“We have raised this issue for decades, and the issue is that the regulator is in charge of, basically, promoting the industry,” Fitzgerald said.

The World Wildlife Fund agrees, saying Canada needs a “modern regulatory regime, that prioritizes environmental protection.”

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The WWF also calls for independent observers on both oil rigs and floating production and storage vessels.

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