Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

An oil drop the size of a coin can kill a seabird. Let's look again at last week's big spill

A drop in the ocean? Even that small amount of oil can be lethal to wildlife.

Oil the size of a toonie can kill a murre. Imagine what a big spill is doing

Storm petrels are among the seabirds that are vulnerable to oil in the ocean. (Submitted)

No matter how you look at it, last week's oil spill at the SeaRose — it's the ship-like platform known as an FPSO that's handling crude pumped from the White Rose field — is a massive headache. 

The volume is considerable: 250,000 litres, or about 250 cubic metres.

Even those very numbers were contentious. The industry uses the latter wording, and skeptics thought they were downplaying the magnitude of what happened. The media, including CBC, used the former, and were accused of overstating it. 

Either way, it's the same amount of oil. And it is a lot. 

[We use litres, by the way, because it's a common measurement that everyone understands. We can relate to a litre, because we've seen it in the fridge. The industry uses cubic metres because its connects to a commodity that is pumped, shipped, processed and sold around the globe.] 

The magnitude was not obvious to all eyes, though. Intermittently, our newsroom heard from some observers who felt the size of the spill — enough to fill most of the closed-again Wedgewood Park pool, a handful of shipping containers or a can of Coke for every person in the province, with a couple hundred thousand to spare — was just not that big a deal. 

Here's one reaction. 

We heard other people use that or similar phrasing, like a "drop in the bucket." 

Let's pick that apart. 

You know what's lethal? A single drop 

Here's some food for thought. 

Do you know what can kill a seabird? A literal drop in the ocean. 

You read that correctly. 

A single drop of oil is enough to kill a dovekie, according to Ian Jones, a Memorial University biologist who is all too familiar with the destructive mix of oil and water. 

A dovekie is a small little auk, granted, but Jones told us that it doesn't take that much more to kill other seabirds. To kill a significantly larger murre, Jones said, you would need "maybe a teaspoon full of crude." 

Biologist Ian Jones says oil the size of a nickel can kill a dovekie, on the bottom, while something as large as a toonie can kill a murre, on top. In the centre is an Atlantic puffin. (Submitted)

It doesn't take much oil to kill a bird. The oil gets into its plumage, violates the seal and exposes the bird to hypothermia. If you've ever worn a wetsuit, you know perfectly well how important maintaining that seal is, and how threatening even a small puncture might be. 

Meanwhile, it's critical for us to think of what happens with oil when it gets into saltwater. It gets shaken up, and just a little oil can contaminate a much larger amount of water. 

Look at this gif we made from a demonstration that colleague Carolyn Stokes took part in at a lab at Memorial University. 

Another colleague, Chris O'Neill-Yates, likened it to what you can do with just a little oil and a whisk while making gravy or a sauce. A little churn, and the whole liquid is transformed. 

Imagine what 250,000 litres of crude can turn into. 

Should we even call it a spill? 

Meanwhile, Bill Montevecchi, the Memorial University prof who has earned worldwide acclaim for his work on seabirds, told us that the word "spill" is not an accurate reflection of what happened. 

"What we're seeing is not an accident. It is the outcome of weak regulation," Montevecchi told us, adding that the Husky was ramping up production after a wicked storm when it should have been waiting for things to clear. 

Memorial University seabird biologist Bill Montevecchi says environmental assessments for the province's offshore should not be in the hands of the C-NLOPB. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

"It's like playing Russian roulette and the bullet just happened to be in the chamber on this one. That should not be an option."

Montevecchi's comment reminds me of investigators and safety advocates who object to the word "accident" to describe a traffic collision that could have been avoided — something due to driver inattention or an illegal move, like running a red. 

Montevecchi has a point about "spill." In one context, the word might remind you of, say, tripping and spilling a bit of your coffee. 

Still, it's an effective word — especially given that the word that Husky Energy used in its first statement was this: "released." 

Recommended reading 

Some things you might like to take a peek at this weekend. 

Disposable diapers can seem to fill a household in no time, and a garbage truck too. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Our own Lindsay Bird, who has lately been reporting a lot on how we use plastics, tapped into her insight as a mom for this feature on cutting down on the disposable diapers that clog landfills. Writing the feature brought to Lindsay's attention — well after the research phase! — a whole slew of people who used cloth diapers for their babies, myself included. 

Crab may once have been king, but the industry is in big trouble. On the horizon: plant closures and fewer jobs. 

Here's how you DON'T manage sensitive personal files ... or how to cause a wicked privacy breach. 

Erin gone, bro: WestJet dashed more than a few vacation plans by pulling the plug on the direct flight from #yyt to Dublin. 

In the west end of St. John's, there's a cemetery with a whole lot of history … including a cold-case murder file

Here's one way to turn a life-threatening allergy into a business opportunity (by way of baking). 

A must-read: Ariana Kelland's feature on women speaking up about pregnancy loss. Heartbreaking. 

Tweet of the week 

Slow clap for the folks at Pasadena Elementary for this chuckle. 

Pretty as a picture 

Wintry wonderland, in November. A view from Burnt Cove, after a wonderful snowfall. (Submitted by Lauren Lee)

Sure, winter doesn't start until next month … officially.  But in lots of places around the province, it's been feeling like winter for a while now. The above photo is one of the treats in our weekly audience gallery. Take a moment to check it out. 

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      That's it for this week. Have a good one. 

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      About the Author

      John Gushue

      CBC News

      John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.


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