New Brunswick

Oil spill at Renforth Wharf raises environmental stewardship concerns

The quaint fishing village on the Kennebecasis River in Rothesay is well-known for its colourful picturesque shacks that pop up each winter. But a recent incident of vandalism on the ice has many people concerned, and angered.

Department of Environment investigates suspected diesel contamination at fishing shack village

Concerns are being raised around the environmental impact the Renforth Wharf fishing village has, after a petroleum spill and debris was found on the ice. (Deborah Irvine Anderson/CBC)

The quaint ice-fishing village on the Kennebecasis River in Rothesay is well-known for its colourful, picturesque shacks that pop up each winter. 

But a recent incident of vandalism on the ice has many people concerned, and angry. 

On the morning of Feb 29., people noticed a strange, brown stain spreading across the ice next to some half-burnt logs. 

Rothesay resident Howie Gould snapped a picture of a strange brown stain on the Kennebecasis River on Feb. 28. (Facebook: Howie Gould)

Rothesay resident Howie Gould, who snapped pictures of the situation during a walk on the river with his wife, said the whole area smelled strongly of gas.

"We walked and saw this big pile of wood," he said

"It looked like it had been half burned, and then we got a little closer and saw the spreading slick of whatever that product is. It smelled an awful lot like some sort of petroleum product."

After inspecting the spill on Monday, the Department of Environment "strongly suspects" the brown liquid seeping across the ice was indeed a hydrocarbon product, likely diesel. 

"It would appear that the stain was caused by a fire...somebody was attempting to start a fire out on the ice with a bunch of old logs, and I guess they weren't terribly successful at that, and it appears that they probably soaked the logs with diesel," said spokesperson Peter McLaughlin.

Will it contaminate the river?

The burnt logs were cleaned up on Tuesday morning, and McLaughlin says the environment department went to clean up the spill later in the day. 

Despite the alarming look of the spill,  McLaughlin isn't very worried about it significantly contaminating the Kennebecasis.

"If this had occurred within a drinking water supply, you could imagine the situation that could result from contamination. You don't want any level of hydrocarbons within a drinking water supply, or even a fresh water supply such as this. It can affect fish, and water quality otherwise as well," he said.

The Renforth Wharf fishing village is around 100 shacks strong this year. (Outflow/Facebook)

The Department of Environment monitors the fishing village each season, and has a firm set of rules posted near the wharf for people to follow. Fires out on the ice, for example, are not permitted.

He said this is the first time in his memory that the department has had to deal with a mess of this nature in the village.

McLaughlin doesn't think the ice-fishers themselves were responsible for the spill—perhaps it was kids having a party out on the ice, he suggests.

"They'd only be shooting themselves in the foot by doing this. I mean, if it gets in the water column and affects the fish they are fishing, obviously it's not a terribly smart move," he said.

An annual issue

While the ice fishers may not be responsible for the strange spill, they have been the cause of other issues out on the ice. 

Garbage, equipment, and sometimes entire shacks themselves, have been left out at the end of the season, according to Rothesay Mayor Nancy Grant.

"I like the fishing villages, but there's always this nasty little component at the end," she said.

Rothesay Mayor Nancy Grant is 'appalled' by the lack of care by some people out on the Kennebecasis River. (CBC)

Most fishers are fairly good at cleaning up after themselves, says Grant, but she's seen an increase in a lack of care year after year.

"When I see debris, it makes me really angry. I think it's appalling that people do this," said Grant.

"We have people deliberately contaminating the river: leaving garbage to wash up on beaches, and to be safety hazards and health hazards to people who are going to use the river in the summer."

Since the spill was discovered, Grant said the town has launched a social media campaign, urging people to clean up after themselves when on the ice.

"Please, please respect the environment and please respect the summer users of the river," she said.

"Don't spoil it for everybody." 

Teachable moment 

Water contamination is a touchy subject for environment advocates at ACAP Saint John, who have spent decades cleaning up the regions watersheds. 

Graeme Stewart-Robertson, ACAP's executive director, said seeing spills like this is disappointing. 

"I think it's important for us to take moments like these where they're acute spills or dumping, to think about the role we have in the community on the health of our water," he said.

ACAP Director Graeme Stewart-Robertson says any fuel spilled on the ice could end up contaminating the water below. (Deborah Irvine Anderson/CBC)

Stewart-Robertson said when petrochemicals get into waterways, it could have a negative impact on fish and plants in the water, and in turn, could lead to health impacts in humans who eat the fish they catch.

He says luckily the spill was small and only on the ice surface, meaning the spill likely won't have a huge impact on the health of the Kennebecasis River.

But, he says it's still not a good thing. 

"This was just one instance that was noticed. It could be indicative of more events happening like this," he said. 

"More people for example, soaking firewood in diesel, or spilling fuel oil when they're using an ice fishing shack heater, refueling on the ice, or any number of different things…and it can eventually work its way into the water." 

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