Nfld. & Labrador

Mysterious diesel slick greasing Postville shore didn't come from land: officials

Officials are now certain the 13-square kilometre diesel slick that appeared off the Labrador coast Monday was a marine-based leak.

The Nunatsiavut and provincial governments say there's no sign 3,000 litres of fuel came from sewage, dump

The Canadian Coast Guard is monitoring the slick from land, water and air to determine cleanup strategies. (Submitted by the Canadian Coast Guard )

Officials are still trying to determine what caused a fuel slick off the coast of Labrador, but Nunatsiavut officials are now adamant the pollution didn't come from a land source.

Postville residents first noticed the 13-square kilometre sheen Monday morning, when the smell of diesel blew in from the harbour.

The Canadian Coast Guard said there appeared to be about 3,000 litres of petroleum-based pollutant in the water at the time. Later observations showed under 1,000 litres remaining, with the rest having evaporated.

Jim Goudie, the Nunatsiavut government's deputy minister of land and natural resources, said the pollutant is light diesel.

After thorough checks of all possible land sources, including hydro and gas stations and the dump, it's not possible the leak came from anywhere in the community, he said.

"I went through the town with coast guard last night. I also did my own inspection of the local fuel farms here. There's no apparent leaks," he said. 

"That's certainly my perspective, that this definitely was a marine event."

Goudie said there are only about 180 people in the town, and the idea of the slick being the result of pollution from the community's sewers — a cause initially suggested by the Woodward Group of Companies, which operates a tanker that docked in Postville over the weekend — is laughable.

"If you took every motorized vehicle in town, completely drained them and then dumped them into the marine environment here, you still wouldn't get anywhere remotely close to 3,000 litres of oil," he said. "I'm a little bit astounded by that statement. It's hard for me to even take that seriously."

Mystery endures

CEO Peter Woodward said he's also stumped about the source, despite suspicions pointed his way.

"I don't know what to do," Woodward said. "I don't believe it came from our ship." 

He said the tanker's captain had no reason to lie about any malfunctions or mistakes on the tanker last weekend.

"We deliver over 200 million litres of fuel by ship every year. We have processes in place the moment there's a spill … to notify the coast guard, to notify senior management," Woodward said. "The liability of hiding a spill is humongous."

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

A coast guard vessel remained with the tanker during its departure and monitored its discharge, he added.

"You'd think if there was a spill of this magnitude the coast guard certainly wouldn't be able to ignore that."

Torngat Mountains MHA Lela Evans raised the issue in Wednesday's question period, asking Service NL Minister Tom Osborne about the source of the fuel.

"At this point we believe it is water-based, not land-based," Osborne said, which would mean federal agencies are responsible for determining the source.

Cleanup begins

Larry Crann, a deputy superintendent with the coast guard, said an incident-response site has been established in Postville to aid with cleanup. The team deployed a containment boom in the harbour earlier Wednesday.

"A lot of this product will be evaporating," Crann said. "Some of it will be dispersing, meaning mixing into the water column, and also some that could be emulsifying."

The response team will be looking at strategies to either absorb the oil or place booms to deflect it from sensitive areas, he said.

Goudie says one of his biggest concerns is for local wildlife. The seabirds normally hanging around the inlet haven't yet returned, and it would be unwise for harvesters to put out char nets for some time, he said.

Goudie's department walked the shoreline Wednesday to assess the slick, while the coast guard and Provincial Airlines observed its spread from the air. 

"This has been an emotionally taxing day," said Goudie, who grew up in Postville.

"You don't want to walk the beaches that you or your kids play on and realize they're covered in a petroleum product. It hasn't been a pleasant experience."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Labrador Morning

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