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Irving Whale goes down

Environmentalists dubbed it a ticking time bomb, and nobody knew when — or if — the Irving Whale oil barge would release its dangerous cargo. Toxic discoveries, legal delays and spiralling costs would all ensue before the Irving Whale saw the light of day — 26 years after sinking off Prince Edward Island in 1970.

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The Irving Whale, a barge with a cargo of heavy bunker C oil, has gone down about 60 kilometres northeast of Prince Edward Island at North Point. Some oil has escaped and washed up along 80 kilometres of coastline of the nearby Magdalen Islands, but the majority remains in the barge on the seabed about 67 metres beneath the surface. CBC reporter Bill Curtis surveys the oil slick and explains the cleanup efforts already underway.

Awareness of oil spills and the damage they can cause is already high -- just days earlier, federal Transport Minister Don Jamieson received a report on the February 1970 sinking of the Arrow, which dumped 9,000 tonnes of oil into the ocean off Cape Breton. Jamieson has ordered an immediate cleanup of the Irving Whale site, and a nearby military base is stocked with bales of peat moss, which soaks up oil on the ocean's surface.
• The Irving Whale sinking was blamed on stormy seas and unsecured hatches on the barge, which was being towed by a tugboat called the Irving Maple.

• Built in 1966, the Irving Whale was an oil supply barge serving the coastal areas of Atlantic Canada. It was about as big as a hockey rink and was laden with about 4,200 tonnes (about five million litres) of heavy bunker C fuel oil.

• After the Irving Whale sank, an oil slick covered an area of about 650 square kilometres. Divers secured the hatches to prevent the leakage of more oil, which was already slowing because the cold waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence had made it congeal.

• The Irving Whale was owned by Irving Oil, a gigantic oil company and shipbuilder based in Fredericton, N.B. Founder K.C. Irving said the company was monitoring the situation "like a cat on a mouse" and, when asked who was responsible for the cleanup, said he hoped there would be nothing to clean up.

• When the federal government approached Irving Oil just days later to recoup over three million dollars in cleanup costs, Irving said that because the event had happened beyond Canada's 12-mile territorial zone, the company was not subject to Canadian jurisdiction. In fact, the law was on its side, rendering the government powerless and prompting new legislation aimed at bettering government control over oil pollution.

• Irving Oil was compensated for the loss by its insurance company, which in turn made no effort to recover the barge or its cargo.

• Environment Canada has predicted that "Based on current levels of tanker traffic, Canada can expect over 100 small oil spills, about 10 moderate spills and at least one major spill offshore each year. A catastrophic spill (over 10,000 tonnes) may occur once every 15 years."
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News
Broadcast Date: Sept. 10, 1970
Reporter: Bill Curtis
Duration: 1:32

Last updated: November 6, 2014

Page consulted on November 6, 2014

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