Booms have been deployed to contain a fuel leak from a pipe on Watson Island.

Booms have been deployed to contain a fuel leak from a pipe on Watson Island.

Pipe leaking fuel into ocean off Watson Island

The BC Ministry of Environment has confirmed fuel is leaking from a pipe on Watson Island into the ocean.

Fuel is leaking from Watson Island into the ocean.

The City of Prince Rupert, the agency currently responsible for the site, the BC Ministry of Environment and supervisors of the former Skeena Pulp Mill have all confirmed a “small leak” of Bunker C oil from a pipe at Watson Island. A Ministry of Environment spokesperson said one to one-and-a-half litres of Bunker C has been leaking from the pipe into the ocean every day for six days and will be taking action “to stabilize, contain and remove the hazard”.

Prince Rupert Mayor Jack Mussallem on Wednesday said his understanding was the leak was diesel, but noted diesel is a derivative of Bunker C.

“They noticed there was a light sheen on the water. They checked, and had a spill of three litres of distillate. They noticed it was actually on the beach,” Mussallem said.

“It’s just a slight spill … it was on the beach as opposed to actually all over the water.”

Mussallem said the leak was brought to the city’s attention over the weekend and was caused by fatigue in a pipe near the dock on Watson Island. The Ministry of Environment was informed of the leak on July 27.

“They detected where the problem was and solved that, and they’re doing a clean up,” he said.

Dan Bates, communications officer with the Canadian Coast Guard, said Wednesday the coast guard had been on site over the weekend. On Thursday, the BC Ministry of Environment told the Northern View the coast guard deployed an oil retaining boom to contain the slick.

The leak is no surprise to Tanner Elton, the chief operating officer of the Watson Island Development Corporation, the group trying to purchase and redevelop Watson Island. Elton said the corporation has been saying for sometime the situation needs to be dealt with immediately.

“It’s a lot easier to get chemicals out of the tanks than the ocean. We’re talking several millions to deal with the chemicals in the tanks, and hundreds of millions if they end up in the ocean. Which would also render the site unusable,” Elton said.

Officials at Watson Island refused entrance to the site to reporters on Tuesday.

The risks of Bunker C

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) terms No. 6 fuel oil as a “dense, viscous oil produced by blending heavy residual oils with a lighter oil (often No. 2 fuel oil) to meet specifications for viscosity and pour point. When spilled on water, No. 6 fuel usually spreads into thick, dark-coloured slicks, which can contain large amounts of oil. The most viscous no. 6 oils will often break up into discrete patches and tarballs when spilled instead of forming slicks. Oil recovery by skimmers and vacuum pumps can be very effective when early in the spill. Very little of this viscous oil is likely to disperse into the water column.

No. 6 fuel oil is a persistent oil; only five to 10 per cent is expected to evaporate within the first hours of a spill. Consequently, the oil can be carried hundreds of miles in the form of scattered tarballs by winds and currents. The tarballs will vary in diameter from several yards to a few inches and may be very difficult to detect visually or with remote sensing techniques.

The specific gravity of a particular No. 6 fuel oil can vary from 0.95 to greater than 1.03. (The specific gravity of seawater is 1.03.) Thus, spilled oil can float, suspend in the water column, or sink. Small changes in water density may dictate whether the oil will sink or float.

Floating oil in a high sediment environment (rivers, beaches) could potentially sink once it picks up sediment, resulting in subsurface tarballs or tarmats.

These oils can occasionally form an emulsion, but usually only slowly and after a period of days. Because of its high viscosity, beached oil tends to remain on the surface rather than penetrate sediments. Light accumulations usually form a “bathtub ring” at the high-tide line; heavy accumulations can pool on the beach.

Effects on Wildlife and Plants

Adverse effects of floating No. 6 fuel oil are related primarily to coating of wildlife dwelling on the water surface, smothering of intertidal organisms, and long-term sediment contamination. No. 6 fuel oil is not expected to be as acutely toxic to water column organisms as lighter oils, such as No. 2 fuel oil.

Direct mortality rates can be high for seabirds, waterfowl, and fur-bearing marine mammals, especially where populations are concentrated in small areas, such as during bird migrations or marine mammal haulouts.

Direct mortality rates are generally less for shorebirds because they rarely enter the water. Shorebirds, which feed in intertidal habitats where oil strands and persists, are at higher risk of sublethal effects from either contaminated or reduced population of prey.

The most important factors determining the impacts of No. 6 fuel oil contamination on marshes are the extent of oiling on the vegetation and the degree of sediment contamination from the spill or disturbance from the cleanup. Many plants can survive partial oiling; fewer survive when all or most of the above-ground vegetation is coated with heavy oil. However, unless the substrate is heavily oiled, the roots often survive and the plants can re-grow.

Shoreline cleanup can be very effective before the oil weathers and becomes very sticky and viscous.”

The City of Prince Rupert has said in legal filings that in addition to the 30,000 gallons of Bunker C fuel oil, there is 1.5-million gallons of black liquor, a caustic by-product of the wood-chip cooking process that, in contact with natural ecosystems, absorbs oxygen and starves all fish and plant life, 500 tonnes of pulp; caustic soda in 10- and 50-per-cent concentrations; 23 tonnes of sulphur stored in a damaged and leaking warehouse; 50,000-cubic metres of hog fuel; PCBs; 38 nuclear devices, used to measure the flow of solids in pipes; and asbestos—lots of it, in the walls and laying in plain view throughout the island.

Look for more on this story in the August 7 issue of the Northern View.

With files from Todd Hamilton