Nfld. & Labrador

Biologists wonder how many seabirds are dead after Husky oil spill off N.L.

The slightest bit of oil can cause a murre to die of hypothermia in the North Atlantic.

We'll likely never know, and that's the scary part, experts say

Gail Fraser doesn't think we'll ever know how many birds are dead after the largest oil spill in Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore history.

Bill Montevecchi doesn't either.

The two academics are leading experts in the seabird populations off Newfoundland and Labrador's coastline, and both were devastated to learn of the spill on Friday.

"It's a rough time of year and a cold time of year," said Fraser, a professor of environmental studies at York University. "If they get their plumage compromised even by a small amount of oil, they can die of hypothermia." 

Bill Montevecchi and Gail Fraser both study seabirds off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. Both have grave concerns for seabird populations after a recent oil spill. (CBC, York University)

The SeaRose suffered a spill while restarting production after an intense storm on Thursday, as eight-metre waves crashed into the ship.

According to an emailed statement from Husky sent Tuesday, the were no oil sheens observed on the water by aerial surveys conducted Monday, but 11 oiled seabirds were reported at the end of the day. Three of the those birds were captured and taken to a rehabilitation centre in St. John's, the release said.

The company said subsea surveys of the SeaRose showed the spill came from a separated weak link between the SeaRose FPSO and a drilling centre in the South White Rose extension.

The area affected — about 350 kilometres off St. John's — is home to murres and dovekies this time of year as they make their way out to sea for the winter.

Fraser said they pack the area in high density and live right on the surface, making them vulnerable to any amount of pollution.

Operations on the SeaRose remain on hold.

Distrust in the amount of oil lost

Both Fraser and Montevecchi recalled the 2004 oil spill on the Terra Nova floating production storage and offloading vessel (FPSO).

Initial reports by its owner, Suncor, said there had been 40,000 litres lost into the ocean. A few days later, it was updated to 170,000 litres.

As a result, Montevecchi is skeptical of the number placed on this spill — 250 cubic metres, or 250,000 litres.

"It's really important to realize that that's an estimate from the oil company — the company that's liable for spills in the ocean, and they are giving us the estimate," he said. "I don't trust that's in fact the amount of oil spilled."

What does it do to fish? I don't know. I don't think any of us know.- Bill Montevecchi

In 2004, seabird biologists tried to figure out how many birds were killed. The estimate for mortality was about 10,000 seabirds. Montevecchi, though, says the number may have been as high as 100,000 seabirds. 

With the sea conditions in the area being rough, Montevecchi has low hopes for those surveying the damage to marine life this week.

"I don't know that we'll ever know. We're not going to see those birds and that even begs the question of what does it do to plankton? What does it do to fish? I don't know. I don't think any of us know. We just know the oil shouldn't be there."

Fisheries union boss weighs in

Keith Sullivan is also left wondering what this means for the fish.

As the president of the fisheries union in the province, he's worried about what this spill could mean for the men and women who make a living fishing off the Grand Banks.

FFAW president Keith Sullivan is concerned for the livelihoods of fish harvesters near the site of an oil spill off Newfoundland. (CBC)

"We know what the North Atlantic is like to operate in, so all precautions should be taken, particularly when there's a storm. So that's obvious," he said.

"The other thing is that this can't be cleaned up. We know if there's a storm in these conditions ... that's going to be dispersed. That's going to have an impact."

Sullivan was angered to see Husky Energy involved in another controversy in the province's offshore industry, after they were sanctioned earlier this year for failing to stop production while an iceberg came bearing down on them.

Investigation into Husky's decision to restart in stormy weather

The decision to halt production during Thursday's storm was made by each of the oil rigs independently. It is also their responsibility to decide when to start production again — without needing approval from the offshore regulator, the C-NLOPB's chair and CEO Paul Tessier told CBC News on Monday.

While the SeaRose decided to restart on Friday, all other production platforms stood down and remained shut in.

An investigation by the C-NLOPB will determine if Husky Energy followed its approved safety plan in trying to restart production and why the company decided to restart in bad weather and rough seas, he said.

The FPSO SeaRose has been involved in two recent controversial incidents in Newfoundland's offshore oil industry.

Waves at the time topped 8.4 metres — nearly 28 feet. A northwesterly wind cut across the ship at more than 80 kilometres per hour.

Fraser doesn't believe that decision should have ever been Husky's to make on its own.

"Part of the problem is that it's a daily expenditure to have this rig being operated and not pumping oil," she said. 

"So I would say it was an unfortunate decision that I wouldn't have agreed with. And I would hope that the regulator going forward could have some rules about conditions where start-ups shouldn't happen."

NDP seeks third-party regulator

Gerry Rogers, leader of the NDP, agrees. Her party issued a statement Monday calling for an independent offshore regulator.

Rogers says the spill and the confusion around it — the lack of clarity over who tells operators to stop and restart in extreme weather conditions, the questions about why Husky would attempt a restart in extreme weather when the other operators stood down — indicate a dire need for a third-party regulator for the province's offshore oil industry.

"Let's do the best that we can to prevent these kinds of situation and to have standards and regulations and enforcements," she told the St. John's Morning Show on Tuesday.

"And to ensure there is adherence to strong regulations."

A report by Commissioner Robert Wells, written after an investigation into offshore safety following 2009's Cougar helicopter crash, recommended the establishment of an independent agency to regulate offshore safety, Rogers said.

It's a recommendation that has largely been dismissed by the province, she said.

"It's simply time to do this," Rogers said. 

We can't afford not to."

With files from Chris O'Neill-Yates, Jane Adey and Ted Blades 

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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