Nova Scotia

Untreated sewage wastewater dumped in Sydney harbour following gas spill

Some residents are calling for the fuel tanks to move after an accidental spill caused a brief evacuation in their north-end neighbourhood in Sydney, N.S.

Fuel shortages also reported at pumps, but Imperial Oil says they are likely unrelated to the spill

Nova Scotia Power crews fully restored electricity on Monday at noon after a gas spill at the Imperial Oil facility on Friday. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

A major gasoline spill at Imperial Oil's fuel storage facility in Sydney, N.S., has resulted in shortages at some gas station pumps and discharge of untreated sewage wastewater into the harbour.

There were no injuries and a voluntary evacuation notice was issued briefly for the residential neighbourhood next door, but some people who live in the area want the tank farm moved.

"We would like to see those tanks out of there," said Grace Arsenault. "It could have been worse. One flame, one spark and it wouldn't have been what it is now."

The evacuation Friday afternoon caused some anxiety for her and other neighbours, Arsenault told Mainstreet Cape Breton.

"It wasn't just a small inconvenience to people. It was a real challenge and it was a very frightening feeling, because we were told it could blow up."

About 600,000 litres of gas leaked out on Friday after a front-end loader punctured one of the storage tanks and the fuel was contained in an earthen berm that surrounds the facility.

Contractors from GHD in Halifax take air measurements to monitor environmental concerns in the neighbourhood next to Imperial Oil's facility on Saturday. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Electricity was shut down to much of the north-end neighbourhood as a precaution against sparks, but it was gradually restored and then fully turned back on by Monday.

Meanwhile, Cape Breton Regional Municipality said Monday the gasoline spill led to untreated wastewater being dumped into the harbour because electricity remained shut off at the tank farm and CBRM's nearby Battery Point sewage treatment plant. 

In an email, municipal spokesperson Christina Lamey said even the backup generator was turned off and the sewage treatment plant was without power for 47 hours.

CBRM says an estimated 48 million litres of untreated sewage wastewater was dumped into Sydney harbour at the Battery Point treatment plant, seen here in a file photo. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

As a result, an estimated 48 million litres of untreated wastewater went into the harbour.

Lamey said it was not technically raw sewage, as many of the solids had settled out.

While that is not ideal, she said, there are still large amounts of untreated wastewater going into the ocean around other parts of CBRM's coastline.

Nova Scotia's Department of Environment is monitoring the fuel cleanup, but not the wastewater spill.

It said that was "an unfortunate circumstance."

The storage facility, which was first built in 1922, supplies much of Cape Breton Island's home heating oil, gasoline and diesel retailers. It is located next to the harbour where ships can dock and deliver fuel.

Several gas stations were out of fuel on the weekend. By Monday, those stations had resupplied, but others had run out.

Mike Pace, owner of Sydco Fuels, said he usually gets his supplies from Imperial, but with the tank farm shut down, his trucks had to travel more than 150 kilometres to the nearest bulk depot in Port Hawkesbury.

Mike Pace, owner of Sydco Fuels, says he usually gets his supplies from Imperial, but his trucks had to travel more than 150 kilometres to the nearest bulk depot in Port Hawkesbury. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

Eventually, they had to run further afield for supplies in Antigonish, which is about 200 kilometres from Sydney, and even Truro, which is another 100 kilometres past Antigonish.

"We will continue to haul product out of probably all three places for the rest of the week and the only undetermined factor is when the bulk plant in Sydney is going to be open," said Pace.

"It's going to be harder and harder and harder to get product for all the oil companies around."

Pace said at first, he wasn't sure how to react to the news of the spill.

"We've never been through this so initially I didn't know what to think and then I heard it was 600,000 litres. That's quite a catastrophe."

Imperial Oil has said shortages at the pumps are likely unrelated to the fuel spill, because the oil company has made alternate arrangements to supply its customers and not all retailers on the island get fuel from them.

Pace said he secured his own supply so his customers would be assured of getting fuel.

"Hopefully it only lasts a couple of days, but if it lasts a couple of weeks, I'm ready for it," he said.

Imperial Oil says shortages at the pumps are likely unrelated to the fuel spill, because the oil company has made alternate arrangements to supply its customers. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

On Monday, Imperial spokesperson Keri Scobie said the company does not know when the facility will reopen, but it is getting close.

The fuel spill has been cleaned up and environmental monitoring is underway.

The extent of the remediation needed at the tank farm will determine when it can allow trucks back in, said Scobie.

"We don't have a timeline on that yet, but we are working that plan today, tomorrow and through the week, so hopefully we will have an update soon," she said.

CBRM fire chief Michael Seth says the tank farm location needs to be re-evaluated and if it's going to stay there, it will need stronger measures to ensure the safety of north-end residents. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

While the company is responsible for cleaning up its site and is monitoring the environmental impacts on the air and ground, Cape Breton regional fire chief Michael Seth said his department is bringing in an industrial safety specialist to look after the safety of nearby residents.

"We're looking to have our own contractor come in and monitor just to do a verification of the numbers and the levels that are being found so that we know exactly what we're dealing with from our perspective," he told Information Morning Cape Breton.

Seth, who moved to Sydney three years ago to take over as fire chief, said he was surprised to find a large fuel storage facility so close to a residential neighbourhood.

"That was one of my questions is why is such a volatile risk being so close to a residential area?" he said.

"It needs to be re-evaluated and if it's going to stay there, it's going to need to be mitigated so that we ensure that all of our residents in that area are well cared for."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 36 years. He has spent half of them covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton, Mainstreet Cape Breton and Gary Mansfield

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