Nfld. & Labrador·CBC Investigates

N.L. taxpayers took on a refinery's environmental liabilities. A report outlining them is 6 years overdue

The Newfoundland and Labrador government has done a U-turn on a previous plan to publicly release information about pre-existing problems at Come By Chance, and now says it is confidential.

In policy reversal, province says info about pre-existing problems at Come By Chance is confidential

The Come By Chance refinery is located on Placentia Bay, about an hour and a half west of St. John's. (Silverpeak)

An environmental site assessment of the Come By Chance oil refinery — which will determine the extent of pre-existing liabilities Newfoundland and Labrador taxpayers have assumed there — is nearly six years overdue.

And the province is now walking back a previous commitment to release that report whenever it's done.

In 2014, Newfoundland and Labrador agreed to take on responsibility for certain environmental issues at Come By Chance, to help foster the sale of the troubled facility at the time.

The agreement covers pre-existing contamination and remediation liabilities relating to soil, sediment, groundwater and surface water at the site of the refinery, which started production in 1973.  

It was a key component in the deal going through seven years ago.

Now the refinery is again in the process of being sold. 

It's not clear what role environmental issues will play in the current acquisition agreement — and how taxpayers may be involved this time around — as the last process to determine liabilities has yet to come to a conclusion.

The initial deadline for that to happen was within 12 months of the refinery's sale in the fall of 2014.

It's not clear why a report that was supposed to be done in one year still hasn't been finalized after nearly seven.

Energy Minister Andrew Parsons was not made available for an interview. Neither was anyone else in the department.

Government U-turn on release of report 

In 2016, then minister of natural resources Siobhan Coady said in an emailed statement to CBC News that work on the environmental site assessment was continuing, and the report would be made public when finished.

An April 2016 briefing note sent by department officials to the office of then premier Dwight Ball underlined that commitment.

"The process of completing and analyzing the extent of any physical contamination is continuing and the full environmental site assessment is now anticipated to be completed later in 2016," Ball and his senior officials were advised at the time.

"Following finalization of the report and submission to government, the report will be released publically."

In 2014, the Newfoundland and Labrador government agreed to assume pre-existing contamination and remediation liabilities relating to soil, sediment, groundwater and surface water at the Come By Chance refinery site. (CBC)

But in an email to CBC News this week, the Department of Energy said the work remains ongoing and the report "likely should be considered the confidential property of NARL Refining."

Government officials suggested CBC News instead ask NARL for it.

NARL did not grant a subsequent request for the most recent findings from the environmental site assessment process.

"Additional information will be available upon planned closing, which is expected in Q3 2021, and is subject to certain conditions," Karen White of National Public Relations replied in a brief email on behalf of the company.

"NARL is not commenting further at this time."

Cresta Fund Management, the Texas-based private equity firm that is acquiring the facility from NARL, did not respond to a CBC News inquiry.

Cresta plans to convert the refinery to produce renewable fuels.

Liability estimates

There are also conflicting messages from the provincial government about how much taxpayers are potentially on the hook for.

Last fall, the Department of Energy rejected an access-to-information request about the amount of those possible environmental liabilities at the refinery.

"Until the phased ESA study work is complete, an estimate of these potential costs is not available," officials said in the department's response.

While the energy department says that estimate is not available, the province's financial statements do put a dollar figure on possible cleanup costs.

The 2019-20 public accounts noted that, while a remediation plan had not been completed, "a preliminary estimate indicates a range of $34-$269 million."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Antle

CBC News

Rob Antle is producer for CBC's investigative unit in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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