Despite repeated calls from the public and political arenas in Newfoundland and Labrador to remove the bunker C oil from the sunken paper carrier Manolis L, a Liberal MP said he has been told point-blank by officials with the Canadian Coast Guard that the recently-installed cofferdam is considered the long-term solution.
Liberal Bonavista Gander Grand Falls-Windsor MP Scott Simms said he had been contacting the Canadian Coast Guard regularly for updates on the Manolis L situation. But then recently, he said he was asked to participate in a conference call that included both the national and regional directors for Coast Guard, as well as a representative of the office of federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea.
in no uncertain terms that this cofferdam that they've put on the Manolis L is now the permanent solution," Simms told CBC's Fisheries Broadcast.
"They said they feel the hull of the ship, the Manolis L, has enough integrity to last for a while. It just seems like they've shut down this operation completely in the sense of [seeking] a long-term solution."
"I'm absolutely gobsmacked."
'What happens if this thing opens up in the spring and there's a catastrophe?' - Liberal MP Scott Simms
Under questioning from Simms on the matter in the House of Commons on Monday, Randy Kamp, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, said the cofferdam is the best plan, unless something changes to suggest otherwise.
"I think we would all agree that it has really gone beyond the call of duty, in many respects, to make sure that this does not become a disaster," Kamp said.
"The answer to [Simms'] question is that the long-term solution is for the cofferdam and the instruments that are in place, and the inspections that will be done will continue to monitor this. If it continues to work, that will be the solution, but if at some point it is no longer working, other actions will have to be taken."
Meanwhile, when contacted by CBC News on Friday, DFO confirmed Kamp's response.
A DFO spokesman said, "The new, redesigned cofferdam that was installed on Jan. 18, 2014 is working. The leaks have stopped and the cofferdam and weighted seals have proven to be good solutions," he said.
"We continue to closely monitor the site and if anything changes, we will take further action. We believe this to be a reasonable and responsible approach."
The Liberian-flagged Manolis L sank after it ran aground in January 1985 on Blow Hard Rock near Change Islands. It went down loaded with more than 500 tonnes of fuel oil and diesel.
Reports of oil in the area prompted the coast guard last spring to install neoprene gaskets to plug hull cracks. In July, it lowered a device called a cofferdam to catch leaking oil.
Another sheen was spotted in October, but the coast guard said at the time that amounts were relatively small and unrecoverable.
But reports from hunters in late December of more sheens, oiled seabirds and the smell of oil raised fresh alarms.
Coast Guard discovered that the original cofferdam had shifted causing some of the oil to escape. So a new cofferdam was designed, and then installed at the wreck site in mid-January.
But with fishing grounds, mussel farms and several high-end tourism operations in the region, residents, scientists and even provincial politicians have been calling on the federal government to extract the oil from the wreck.
There is a public Facebook site and a website calling for a full clean up. Simms hosted a series of public meetings on the situation. He said those meetings were standing room only, and the consensus was clear that people wanted the wreck cleaned up.
"We told them during those public hearings what was coming out about people smelling oil before they even see it ... but I guess they will take the word of a plane flying overhead as opposed to the people that are living there and out on the front line," Simms said.
"What happens if this thing opens up in the spring and there's a catastrophe?"
In the meantime, Simms contends he now cannot get updates about the situation directly from Coast Guard.
"Our office called the Coast Guard earlier this week and we were referred to the Minister's office, period," he said.
"As the Member of Parliament I have to call the Minister's office — that's it, that's all — on this potential disaster. We want a long-term solution."