Nfld. & Labrador

Nearly the length of Fogo Island: That's how big the SeaRose spill slick was

Emails between Husky Energy and the C-NLOPB shed new light on the size the sheens spotted after the largest offshore oil spill in the province's history.

Scientists say Husky, regulator could have been more forthcoming with numbers

On Nov. 16, 250,000 litres of oil leaked from Husky's SeaRose FPSO. (Photo courtesy Husky Energy)

Emails obtained by CBC News show a slick that formed after Newfoundland and Labrador's largest offshore oil spill in history measured 21 kilometres by eight kilometres — more than two-thirds the area of Fogo Island.

Memorial University biologist Ian Jones says those numbers about November's back-to-back spills are "shocking."

He monitored the spills using incident reports and updates posted to websites for both Husky and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board and says he didn't come across those numbers.

"It is more than a bit shocking that this information wasn't released in the incident report web pages," he said.

Memorial University professor Ian Jones says both Husky Energy and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board should have included the dimensions of the slick in their incident reports, not just volume. (Gary Locke/CBC)

On Nov. 16, two spills on Husky's SeaRose production vessel released 250,000 litres of oil, water and gas into the ocean about 350 kilometres east of St. John's.

A spokesperson for the C-NLOPB said while information about the existence of sheens was widely released, the regulator didn't say how big they were because its communications were focused on how it was monitoring Husky's response to the spill.

A spokesperson for Husky Energy says the sheen size was shown on a spill site map that was on display behind Husky exec Trevor Pritchard as he gave a presentation to media at the time.

That map was also emailed to some members of the media, the spokesperson said.

This is the map that was on the wall behind Husky executive Trevor Pritchard as he gave a presentation about the spill to the media. (Submitted by Husky Energy)

But Jones is not impressed.

"[That] is not an adequate public release of vital information," he said, noting that the map isn't anywhere online in the company's incident reports.

"The takeaway from this is that the responsible party for an oil spill seems to be in charge of releasing information about their own pollution event which, if you think about it, is totally absurd."

Slick spotted by Atlantic Hawk

Using access to information legislation, CBC News requested copies of emails sent between Husky Energy and the C-NLOPB around the time of the SeaRose spill.

According to those emails, the Atlantic Hawk — a ship sent immediately after the spill to survey the area — first noted a "mile-long indication of oil" at the site. 

According to Husky Energy, this faulty connector was the culprit behind the spill. (Husky Energy)

The next day, an email from the C-NLOPB notes two sheens: one about nine kilometres by six kilometres, and one 100 metres by 100 metres.

An update sent roughly five hours later references a sheen 27 kilometres south of the site, 21 kilometres by eight kilometres big.

The slick was thin, the email said — according to a specialized rating system, there were likely 40 litres of oil in each square kilometre.

"Depending on sea states, the size, trajectory and density of a spill will naturally change," Lesley Rideout, a spokesperson for the C-NLOPB, told CBC News.

Missed opportunity

"I'm not surprised that it was that big, nor that it wasn't well-advertised," said Brad de Young, a physical oceanographer at Memorial University.

He said he'd like to see the stakeholders in our offshore oil industry commit to doing the studies and the research needed on spills like the SeaRose incident to really learn from them — not learn just about how the dump will affect the wildlife and the environment, but how spilled oil will behave in the frigid, rough waters of the North Atlantic.

Because right now, when it comes to spills in the province's offshore, there are a lot of unknowns, he said.

"Oil hasn't been around long enough for us to see the full trajectory of what happens to it ... in this environment. It will be different from the Gulf of Mexico, quite clearly. It might be more similar to the Gulf of Alaska. But then again, maybe not."

Brad de Young is an oceanographer with Memorial University of Newfoundland, in St. John's. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Better transparency is a small, but important part of that, he said.

"If you want to be smarter, to really learn from it, you have to have some kind of organized observational strategy beyond just a boat that goes out and tells you there's oil in the water," he said.

"I think it's really going to take something dramatic before people really take it seriously."

Coady says she'll ask if size can be reported

Opposition leader Ches Crosbie led Thursday's question period in the House of Assembly by demanding to know if Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady was aware of the size of spill.

Coady said that information — 250,000 litres — was disclosed almost immediately.

Crosbie said he was asking about area not litres, claiming Coady was "out of the loop" and that she gave incorrect information to the House of Assembly.

"First of all, the information I gave the House of Assembly, and the information I gave the people of the province was totally correct: 250,000 litres," Coady yelled back.

"The size of the sheen on the water changed day by day, hour by hour," adding that was made aware of the area covered by the spill "at one point."

Size means more than volume: Crosbie

When pressed further, she said she was unable to recall when that point was.

Crosbie said he believes the size of any sheen would mean more to the public than the volume and asked Coady if she'd require incident reports to include that information.

Coady emphasized the size of any sheen changes constantly with sea states and that it was "more accurate" to give the spill size in litres, but said she would pass Crosbie's request along.

"I know that all aspects of this oil spill are under investigation, including communications. And I will endeavour to ensure that the member opposite's voice is placed before those investigating this to say they would like it, in terms of reporting, as to what the visual viewpoint is from an hour to hour basis."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Sarah Smellie is a journalist in St. John's.


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