Nfld. & Labrador

MUN prof skeptical of oil company info in wake of spill

Five vessels, three wildlife observers and a plane are all involved in Friday's continuation of the cleanup effort, after 12,000 litres of oil spilled into the North Atlantic earlier this week.

'Oil spills anywhere, and in the offshore, it's Russian roulette,' says Bill Montevecchi

An oil sheen on the surface of the water is seen from a Canadian Coast Guard flyover on Wednesday afternoon. (Canada-Newfoundland & Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board)

A Memorial University professor of biology and ocean science compared oil spills in the offshore industry to playing "Russian roulette" with wildlife.

Bill Montevecchi told CBC's St. John's Morning Show he's skeptical of information that comes from oil companies in the wake of incidents like Wednesday's, with a reported 12,000 litres of oil spilled at the Hibernia offshore oil platform, about 315 kilometres southeast of St. John's.

"We take it as totally acceptable that we take self-reports from oil companies about the oil they spill, and, perhaps more importantly, about how it was spilled and why it was spilled," said Montevecchi.

He called it a "failed system of reporting," noting Hibernia initially reported a 2013 spill as 10 litres, and it turned out to be 6,000 litres.

"How much would you trust the final estimate? We don't have any independent assessments of what they're telling us," he said.

Five vessels, three wildlife observers and an airplane were all called into duty Friday to help mitigate and monitor the aftermath of the oil spill.

Two of the ships were being used to collect some of the oil from the North Atlantic, the remnants of the estimated 12,000 litres that discharged Wednesday from one of Hibernia's storage cells into the ocean.

Wildlife has been spotted in the area, the platform's operator, Hibernia Management and Development Company, said in a press release, but so far there have been no reports of affected marine life.

Three wildlife observers are also on the scene, as well as person monitoring air quality, all of whom are reporting back every hour, the company said.

Surveillance of wildlife

A surveillance flight also set out Friday morning from St. John's to check on wildlife, as well as the location of the oil sheen, and report back to the response team.

HMDC said it is using a variety of other cleanup methods for the spill, including mechanically dispersing it and using tracking buoys.

Montevecchi said any time oil spills, there's a potential for harm.

"Oil spills anywhere, and in the offshore, it's Russian roulette," said Montevecchi. "It depends when spills and birds come into contact."

One of the seabird species at risk is a birds known as Leach's storm petrel, Montevecchi said.

"These are little, tiny, brown seabirds that occurs here in the millions, but their populations have halved in the last 30 years. Those birds feed off the edge of the Grand Bank."

Montevecchi said the birds are attracted to the lights of the Hibernia platform and generally feed on the surface of the water.

Critical of reports

He said he has no information on the state of the bird population after the spill, but he's wary of the information being provided from HMDC​​​​​​ to the media and the public.

HMDC says there have been no reports of the most recent spill affecting wildlife, but Montevecchi isn't buying it.

"I don't think that's a statement that we put a lot of credence in," he said. 

He puts more stock in the reports from wildlife observers in the area.

"I'm hoping that's Environment Canada and [Environment and Climate Change Canada]. They would be doing flyovers, so I hope that's the case — that they're out there," he said. 

Oil production remains at a standstill, after being shut down on Thursday in what the company has called a "proactive" measure.

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