Nfld. & Labrador

Cleanup of Postville fuel slick continues as oil 'fingerprinting' could help point to culprit

The source of a 3,000-litre sheen that appeared off the Labrador coast Monday still has investigators stumped.

Chemical sample taken from Woodward tanker, CEO says

A sizable fuel slick in Postville is still under investigation. (Submitted by Charlie Flowers)

As responders scramble to contain a diesel slick that appeared on the shores of Postville earlier this week, wildlife experts say aside from cleanup, finding the culprit should be investigators' top priority.

The 3,000-litre sheen blanketed the community's harbour Monday. The Canadian Coast Guard has since installed an incident response site and deployed staff to place booms in the water and determine possible "hot spots" along the shoreline where the fuel is accumulating.

The booms, said deputy superintendent Larry Crann, will either absorb the fuel or redirect it away from sensitive areas.

Seabird expert Bill Montevecchi said Thursday it's likely still too early to estimate the full extent of damage to the ecologically rich area.

"There's usually no recovery of any significance in these kind of events," Montevecchi said. Fortunately, he added, the type of fuel — likely a light diesel as opposed to heavy crude — means much of it will evaporate, potentially sparing some local wildlife.

The coast guard said Thursday the size of the slick has diminished to 350 litres.

"That's probably a good thing for the environment," he said. "But … some of it's going to congeal, some of it's gonna get sloppy on the coastline."

The sheen has washed up on the shores of Postville. (Submitted by Lavern Broomfield)

Residents raised fears over the remaining fuel's impact to food stocks, such as char, that the community heavily relies on. Montevecchi said consequences to population levels and toxicity at all levels of the food chain means harvesters now need to exercise extreme caution before consuming wild game.

"You want to worry about things like fish … mussels, or any filter feeding animals that are on the bottom," Montevecchi said. "That's where that kind of stuff can accumulate."

Nunatsiavut Deputy Land Resources Minister Jim Goudie said thorough investigations show the fuel didn't come from any tank or dump site on land.

Meanwhile, the Woodward Group of Companies — which operates a tanker that docked in Postville just before the sheen appeared — has rejected responsibility for the leak, telling CBC News its ship shows no sign of having lost fuel.

The company says it's co-operating with investigators.

"We've given [the coast guard] a sample of our fuel so they can run it against theirs. We really don't think it's us," CEO Peter Woodward said.

Montevecchi says it's essential to identify the source of the mess. "The polluter pays for cleanup," he pointed out. "It didn't fall out of the sky.… It shouldn't be difficult to figure this out."

Oil 'fingerprinting'

Efforts so far have stymied investigators, but one strategy could at least help narrow down the possibilities.

Comparing the chemical composition of a sample, like the one from the tanker, to the slick, could help investigators focus their efforts — a method analogous to matching a person's fingerprints to those left at the scene of a crime.

"Sometimes the distinctive properties can link it to a particular source," said Ian Jones, a biologist at Memorial University.

However, that first requires access to the offending source, Jones said. "If it's diesel fuel that's in widespread use among a lot of different users, you wouldn't be able to necessarily pinpoint a particular perpetrator," he said.

"It probably could be used to rule it out, if it's different."

Jones said it's possible an old sunken ship could also have released the fuel, but the initial size of the slick rules out smaller vessels.

"That's a quite a large amount of oil. That puts it into a category of a fairly significant oil spill," he said.

"So you would wonder how it could be possible that we don't know where it came from."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Rebecca Martel