Unique oil spill in East China Sea frustrates scientists

As reported by Cally Carswell in Nature, When the Iranian oil tanker Sanchi collided with a cargo ship, caught fire and sank in the East China Sea in mid-January, an entirely new kind of maritime disaster was born. Nearly two weeks later, basic questions remain unanswered about the size of the spill, its chemical makeup and where it could end up. Without that crucial information, researchers are struggling to predict the short- and long-term ecological consequences of the incident.

Sanchi Oil Tanker partially explodes in East China Sea (Photo Credit: CNN)

“This is charting new ground, unfortunately,” says Rick Steiner, a former University of Alaska professor in Anchorage who has studied the environmental impacts of oil spills and consulted with governments worldwide on spill response. “This is probably one of the most unique spills ever.”

The infamous spills of the past — such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, or the Exxon Valdez tanker rupture in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 — involved heavier crude oil. It can remain in the deep ocean for years and has chronic impacts on marine life. The Sanchi carried a little more than 111,300 metric tons of natural gas condensate, a lighter, more volatile petroleum product which doesn’t linger as long in the environment. Condensate has never before been unleashed into the sea in large quantities.

Unlike heavy crude, condensate doesn’t accumulate in shimmering slicks on the water’s surface, which makes it difficult to monitor and contain. Neither does it sink to the ocean floor, as do some of the heavier constituents in crude over time. Rather, it burns off, evaporates or dissolves into the surface water, where some of its chemical components can linger for weeks or months.

“Most oil spills have a chronic toxicological effect due to heavy residuals remaining and sinking over time,” says Ralph Portier, a marine microbiologist and toxicologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “This may be one of the first spills where short-term toxicity is of most concern.”

Missing science

A significant, but unknown, portion of the Sanchi’s condensate probably fuelled the fires that followed the collision. In the waters immediately surrounding the tanker, Portier says, the conflagration and gaseous fumes would have killed off or injured phytoplankton, along with birds, marine mammals and fish that were caught in the vicinity when the tanker ignited.

Moving beyond the fire, the impact of the accident becomes harder to discern. That’s because the exact chemical composition of the condensate has not yet been made public, Steiner says, and because no one knows how much of the condensate dissolved into the water.

“The part I’m most worried about is the dissolved fraction,” Steiner says. Toxic chemicals in the condensate could harm plankton, fish larvae and invertebrate larvae at fairly low concentrations at the sea surface, he says. Fish could suffer reproductive impairments so long as chemicals persist in the water, and birds and marine mammals might experience acute chemical exposure. “In a turbulent, offshore environment, it dilutes fairly quickly,” he says. “But it’s still toxic.”

Because this type of spill is new, Portier says, researchers don’t yet understand the ultimate consequences of acute exposure to condensate in the sea, where it’s breaking down and dispersing. “That’s really where the science is missing,” he says.

Destination unknown

Researchers are also scrambling to assess where pollutants from the Sanchi could travel. Groups in both China and the United Kingdom have run ocean-circulation models to predict the oil’s journey, and the models agree that much of the pollution is likely to end up in a powerful current known as the Kuroshio, which flows past southeastern Japan and out to the North Pacific. The European models suggest that chemicals from the Sanchi could reach the coast of Japan within a month. But the Chinese models indicate that they are unlikely to intrude on Japanese shores at all.

Katya Popova, a modeller with the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK, isn’t sure why the models disagree. But she says that the discrepancy points to the importance of forging international collaborations to increase confidence in model projections during emergencies. “This is something that the oil industry should organize and fund to improve preparedness,” she says.

Fangli Qiao with China’s State Oceanic Administration in Qingdao says his group’s models indicate that the pollution’s probable path overlaps with Japanese sardine and anchovy fisheries. But Popova cautions that the models are not necessarily good indicators of potential harm to fisheries or coastlines.

“All we’re saying is, if something is spilled here at this time, we can give you the most probable distribution,” she says. “We don’t know what type of oil or how much.” Those are crucial details because condensate components could degrade or evaporate before reaching important fisheries or shores. “A monitoring programme is the most pressing need right now,” Popova says, “to see where it goes and in what concentration.”

Yet Steiner says that comprehensive environmental monitoring doesn’t seem to have started. Official Chinese-government statements have included results from water-quality monitoring at the wreckage site, but none from the downstream currents that could be dispersing the pollution. “Time is of the essence, particularly with a volatile substance like condensate,” Steiner says. “They needed to immediately be doing plankton monitoring, and monitoring of fish, sea birds. I’ve seen no reports of any attempt to do that.”

Nature 554, 17-18 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-00976-9

Key Developments in Environmental Law in Canada from 2017

A book on the developments in environmental law in Canada during 2017 was recently published by Thomson Reuters.  Edited by Stanley D. Berger of Fogler Rubinoff LLP, the book includes a number of interesting chapters related to contaminated sites and the issues raised in the Midwest Properties Ltd. v. Thordarson (“Midwest”) court case.  The Midwest case is part of a possible trend in Canada toward awarding damages based on restoration costs rather than diminution in value.  If nothing, else the Midwest Case has introduced uncertainty to the law of damages in contaminated sites cases.

In the chapter written by Natalie Mullins, a litigation partner in the Advocacy and Environmental groups in the Toronto office of Gowling WLG, on the evolution and current state of law on damages in contaminated sites, she states that despite being explicit about awarding compensatory damages only under section 99 of the Alberta Environmental Protection Act (“EPA”) and not at common law, the Alberta Court of Appeal may have implied that restoration costs are the default measure of damages in contaminated sites cases.  She also explores some other critical issues that have arisen post-Midwest, such as:

  • Whether diminution in value is still relevant to the measure of damages;
  • What it means to “restore” a real property;
  • How the court can take a proactive role to ensure that awards made to benefit the environment actually meet that objective; and
  • How defence counsel might prevent similar awards in the future, and how plaintiff’s counsel might use the case to obtain significant damages for their clients.

An interesting point raised by Ms. Mullins in her contaminated sites chapter is that in recent court cases, highlighted with Midwest, court decisions may be paving the way for plaintiffs to recover very significant damage awards for the contaminated of their sites that grossly exceed their actual loss and, in certain circumstances, may be completely unwarranted.

Ms. Mullins questions if the Midwest decision has created the potential for litigants to profit off purchasing contaminated sites and for defendants to face double jeopardy following judgment at trial.

The book is available at online for $144 (Cdn.).

 

Remediation of Trichoroethane (TCE) – contaminated groundwater by persulfate oxidation

Researchers in Taiwan performed field trials on the ability of persulfate to remediate trichloroethane (TCE) contaminated groundwater.  The purpose of the field trial was to (1) evaluate the efficacy of TCE treatment using persulfate with different injection strategies; (2) determine the persistence of persulfate in the aquifer; (3) determine the persulfate radius of influence and transport distance; and (4) determine the impact of persulfate on indigenous microorganisms during remediation.

The researchers discovered that persulfate removed up to 100% TCE under specific conditions.  Overall, they found a single, higher does of persulfate was more effective at destroying TCE than two separate, smaller doses.

Results show that sequential injections of a large amount of persulfate are suggested to maintain good long-term performance for TCE treatment. This paper is available at http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2018/ra/c7ra10860e.

Arsenic found to control uranium contamination

As reported by World Nuclear News, an international team led by the University of Sheffield has discovered that the toxic element arsenic prevents uranium from an abandoned mine in the UK migrating into rivers and groundwater.  The discovery could help in the remediation of former uranium mines and other radioactively contaminated areas around the world, the scientists believe.

The team of scientists – led by the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield – studied the uranium and arsenic in the topsoil at the abandoned South Terras uranium mine in Cornwall, England.

The researchers used some of the world’s brightest synchrotron X-ray microscopes – the Swiss Light Source and the USA’s National Synchrotron Light Source – to unearth what is believed to be the first example of arsenic controlling uranium migration in the environment.  These microscopes use intense X-ray beams to focus on a spot just one-millionth of a metre in diameter.

“We use synchrotron X-rays to identify and isolate the microscopic uranium particles within the soils and determine their chemical composition and mineral species,” said co-author of the study, Neil Hyatt.  “It’s like being able to find tiny uranium needles in a soil haystack with a very sensitive metal detector.”

Source: © Claire Corkhill
The abandoned South Terras mine in Cornwall where uranium was mined until 1930

According to the study – published on 14 December in Nature Materials Degradation – ore extraction processes and natural weathering of rock at the South Terras mine has led to the proliferation of other elements during degradation, particularly arsenic and beryllium, which were found in significant concentrations.  The arsenic and uranium were found to have formed the highly insoluble secondary mineral metazeunerite.

“Significantly, our data indicate that metazeunerite and metatorbernite were found to occur in solid solution, which has not been previously observed at other uranium-contaminated sites where uranyl-micas are present,” the study says.

Claire Corkhill, lead author of the study, said: “Locking up the uranium in this mineral structure means that it cannot migrate in the environment.”

The researchers concluded that this process at South Terras – which operated between 1873 and 1930, producing a total of 736 tonnes of uranium – is the result of a set of “rather unique” geological conditions.  “To identify this remediation mechanism at other sites, where arsenic and uranium are key co-contaminants, further detailed mineralogical assessments are required,” they said.  “These should be considered as an essential input to understand the ultimate environmental fate of degraded uranium ore.”

“The study has far-reaching implications, from the remediation of abandoned uranium mines across the world, to the environmental clean-up of nuclear accidents and historic nuclear weapons test sites,” according to the scientists.  “It also shows the importance of local geology on uranium behavior, which can be applied to develop efficient clean-up strategies.”

Keystone Pipeline Spill Response deemed a Success

In early December, a section of the Keystone Pipeline leaked 210,000 gallons of oil near the South Dakota City of Amherst.  Representatives of Trans-Canada Pipeline, the owner of the pipeline, deemed the detection of the leak and prompt spill response as an example of its exemplary contingency measures that are in place to detect and respond to such incidents.

An aerial view shows the darkened ground of an oil spill which shut down the Keystone pipeline between Canada and the United States, located in an agricultural area near Amherst, South Dakota.
REUTERS/Dronebase

When fully complete, the Keystone Pipeline will carry bitumen from the Alberta oil fields to refineries in Texas.  At present, the pipeline runs from Alberta, through North Dakota and South Dakota.

As reported in the Prairie Public News, Julie Fedorchak of the North Dakota Public Service Commission (PSC) stated that the company’s quick response to the incident shows that its response plan worked perfectly.

“The system was shut down within three minutes,” Fedorchak said.  “And importantly, the spill was detected.”

Fedorchak said the spill showed up on its detection equipment, and the people overseeing system noticed it, and.

“They knew it was something off,” Fedorchak said.  “And the quick shutdown prevented what could have been a much more difficult spill.”

But Fedorchak said there are still questions about why the spill happened.

“It’s a new line,” Fedorchak said. “New lines like this shouldn’t be having those kinds of issues.”

Fedorchak said it’s important that the company and federal pipeline regulators do the tests needed on that pipeline, to try to figure out what caused it.

“That’ll be a learning opportunity for the entire industry,” Fedorchak said.

The company believes it may have been caused by an abrasion on the pipeline coating, that happened during construction.

“Perhaps there were some things in the ground that could have caused it,” Fedorchak said. “Or it could have been a problem with the pipeline protection itself. They’re looking at a number of things.”

Clean-up work continues at the spill site.

RFPs for Spill Response Equipment by Canadian Coast Guard

The Canadian Coast Guard is soliciting bids for new spill response equipment for use on its marine vessels.  The equipment will be used to contain and remove oil and other contaminants from the water in the case of a spill.

The RFPs can be found at the following web sites:

All interested suppliers may submit a bid which is open to companies from Canada, the United States, and other countries that are part of various trade agreements with Canada.

The competitive procurement strategy will be based on lowest bid meeting the technical specifications.

This will be the first equipment acquired under the Environmental Response Equipment Modernization initiative of the Oceans Protection Plan.  The equipment will include curtain booms, high-speed sweep systems, and small, portable multi-cassette skimmers.

The Environmental Response Equipment Modernization initiative will bring the Coast Guard in line with and beyond current standards regarding environmental spill response and take advantage of innovations and advancements in technology.

Innovations in Pipeline Design: Leak-proof technology

By Dema Mamon, M.Sc.Pl, BES and John Nicholson, M.Sc., P.Eng.

In Canada, getting approval to construct an oil pipeline has become increasingly difficult. Despite the fact that new, advanced software has led to more sophisticated caesar piping, in Canada every oil pipeline incident that involves a leak and subsequent clean-up is widely covered in the media, providing fuel for pipeline opponents that call an end to the construction of new pipelines.

Abacus Data Inc., an Ottawa-based research firm, has been tracking public opinion on the construction of new pipeline capacity and has found some interesting trends. Since 2014, polling has shown that the negative view of building new oil pipelines has remained steady at 21 to 22% range. However, there was a drop in the positive attitude amongst Canadians toward building new pipelines – from 58% in 2014 to 44% in 2017. Over that three year span, a good proportion of Canadians who once viewed building new pipeline capacity with a positive attitude have shifted to a neutral view, which will have a pipe heater around the majority of them to reduce heating. The neutral view on oil pipelines has grown from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2017.

There can be many theories to explain the three year shift in public opinion on new oil pipelines. One plausible theory is that oil spills from pipelines typically make headline news, thus leaving an impression in the minds of Canadians the perhaps pipelines are not as safe as the industry states. Oil leaks from pipelines damage the environment, are costly to clean-up, and fuel public opinion that pipelines are not safe. To prevent future spillages and oil theft, the use of something like bunded fuel tanks would be a good place to start, especially since they are environmentally friendly. Anything worth saving the planet and preventing damage is worth doing for sure.

One way to eliminate the perception that building new oil pipelines is bad for the environment and shift public opinion in favour of such projects is to build pipelines that don’t leak. However, is it even possible to build leak-proof pipelines?

Are Double-Walled Pipelines the Answer?

One logical idea for building leak-proof pipelines is for them to be double-walled. The outer wall would serve as protection from external damage. The technology does exist to construct double-walled pipelines and they are used in certain circumstances such as when there is a large temperature difference between the liquid in the pipe and the surrounding environment.

Double-walled pipelines are not considered the cure-all by some in the industry. Those resistant to the use of double-walled pipelines note that in some instances, it may be more cost effective to protect pipelines from the potential of external damage by burying them or placing slabs over them in higher risk areas. Furthermore, it can be more difficult to monitor a double-walled pipeline and an outer pipe interferes with the maintenance of the inner pipe.

At the University of Calgary, researchers believe their two-walled pipeline design and monitoring system is the solution to preventing spills. Although double-walled pipelines have been around since the 1980’s, Thiago Valentin de Oliveira, an electrical and computer-engineering master’s student, and Martin Mintchev, an engineering professor, say that their design is superior.

The U of Calgary researchers designed and constructed their prototype to consist of a typical steel inner layer with either a steel or plastic outer layer. There is an air gap between inner and outer pipeline contains the oil that leaks from the inner pipeline leak. The real innovation developed by the U of Calgary is the segmentation of the inter-pipe space and the inclusion of a linear wireless network linking the segments. With the segmentation, a leak of oil from the inner pipe enters the air gap between the two pipes and is contained in a section of pipe. Wireless pressure sensors between the two walled layers detect the pressure build up and send an alert to the pipeline control staff.

If commercially implemented, the U of Calgary system would allow pipeline operators with the means of quickly shutting down the pipeline when a leak was detected into the outer pipeline and crews could be dispatched to make repairs. The oil that leaked from the inner pipe would be contained in the air gap between the two pipes and be confined to one section of the pipeline.

The U of Calgary researchers estimate that their design would result in an additional 25% in the capital cost of building pipelines. They believe this cost could be reduced if the outer pipeline material was composite materials or plastic.

Is Advanced Monitoring the Solution?

Also in Alberta, a Calgary-based firm, HiFi Engineering, recently announced that it has developed an innovative pipeline leak detection system. Dubbed High-Fidelity Dynamic Sensing (HDS™), the monitoring system can spot the exact location of a leak in a pipeline within seconds of it occurring. The system continuously monitors temperature, sonic and ultrasonic acoustics, and vibration and strain. Any anomaly in the measurements results in an alert being sent to the pipeline company control room.

Hifi Engineering’s High Fidelity Dynamic Sensing (HDS) technology is being called the ‘ears of pipeline monitoring.’

The system works utilizing fiber optic cables that run the length of the pipeline. A laser beam is sent down the length of the optic cable and sends signals back that provide a multitude of information to the pipeline control room.

TransCanada Pipelines Corporation has already installed the HiFi HDS™ monitoring system in sections of the Keystone XL oil pipeline that runs from Canada to the U.S. Also, Enbridge employs the technology in its new northern Alberta pipeline.

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About the Authors

Dema is a graduate of York University’s Bachelor in Environmental Studies program (2008) and the University of Toronto’s Masters of Science in Planning Programme (2010). She is currently pursuing her Canada Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s Green Associate certification. Her research interests include environmental conservation, green infrastructure, and sustainability. She can be reached at dema.mamon@gmail.com.

John Nicholson is the editor of Hazmat Management Magazine. He has over 25 years of experience in the environmental and cleantech sectors. He is a registered professional engineer in the Province of Ontario and has a M.Sc. in environmental engineering. His professional experience includes time at a large engineering consulting firm, a major Canadian law firm, and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.

Groundwater and PFAs: State of Knowledge and Practice

National Ground Water Association (NGWA) Press, Westerville, OH. ISBN: 1-56034-037-1, 114 pp, 2017

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are a group of chemicals that are emerging contaminants of concern due to their persistence in the environment, bioaccumulative potential, and toxicity.

Chemical structure of perfluorooctanoic acid

PFASs have previously been used in a range of industrial processes, consumer products (such as 3M’s Scotchgard fabric and upholstery protector), aviation hydraulic fluid and fire-fighting foam. The two main PFASs are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The unique properties of PFASs that make them useful in products and industrial processes also mean that they are persistent in the environment and highly mobile. They are therefore challenging to manage and remediate once released into the environment. They are potentially bioaccumulative and potential health effects may include developmental, reproductive and systemic effects and possibly cancer. PFOS has been listed as a persistent organic pollutant (POP) in Annex B of the Stockholm Convention since 2010. The use of PFOS in products has been phased out in Australia since the early 2000’s.

Beginning in October 2016, 37 scientists and engineers voluntarily collaborated through the National Ground Water Association to develop information on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) for the broader groundwater community. Using a consensus-driven process that included a public comment period, their efforts were completed toward the end of 2017.  NGWA published this PFAS document to assist members and other groundwater professionals who may be tasked with investigating the transport pathways and extent of PFASs in groundwater and surface water, assessing potential risks to receptors, or designing and constructing engineering controls to manage subsurface PFAS contamination.  The main purpose of this document is to summarize the current state of knowledge and practice regarding PFAS fate, transport, remediation, and treatment, recognizing that knowledge in this field continues to advance. This document also summarizes current technologies, methods, and field procedures being used to characterize sites and test remediation and treatment technologies. Temporarily available at http://www.ngwa.org/Professional-Resources/Pages/Groundwater-and-PFAS.aspx

PFAs can be used in fire fighting foams

 

Ontario MOECC Issues Draft Order to Mining Company in Northern Ontario

Ontario MOECC recently issued a draft Director’s Order to Ontario Graphite Ltd. and several Directors of the company that, if finalized, will require the company to perform remedial work related to an interceptor trench, mine tailings dam, polishing pond.

The mining operation, referred to as the Kearney Graphite Mine, is located Township of Butt in the District of Parry Sound, approximately 20 km north east of the community of Kearney.

Ontario Graphite Ltd. Kearney Mine Site (Photo Credit: Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal)

Under these sections of the Environmental Protection Act and Ontario Water Resources Act, the Director may require a person who owns, or owned, or who has or had management or control of an undertaking or property, to take immediate actions and environmental measures to protect the natural environment and to prevent or reduce the discharge of a contaminant into the natural environment from the undertaking or property, or to prevent, decrease or eliminate an adverse effect.

The overall objective of the proposed Director’s Order is to amend an existing Director’s Order issued on January 26, 2016 to have the company implement a work plan for the treatment of mine water discharges as well as submit a written report prepared by a qualified person.

On April 10, 2017, Ontario Graphite Ltd. reported that the open pit was overflowing to the environment as a result of spring melt.  Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) staff visited the site on April 12, 2017 and observed that the collection trench used by the company to prevent acidic water from entering Graphite Lake (i.e. the interceptor ditch) had also overflowed at some point prior to the site visit.

During the April 12, 2017 MOECC site visit, company staff reported to the ministry that additional erosion had occurred on the downstream dam that separates the tailings management area from the polishing pond. Company staff did not foresee concerns for dam stability; MOECC staff, however, recommended that the company have someone with the necessary expertise undertake evaluation of the structure.

In response to the MOECC recommendation, the company retained a consulting firm to provide recommendations for any needed remedial work on the tailings dam. As detailed in the updated action plan submitted to the ministry on October 30, 2017, the company awaits receipt of the report detailing these recommendations and following receipt, will implement the recommendations noted.

In 2017, Ontario Graphite Limited reported several non-compliance incidents with water quality discharge limits specified in the Environmental Compliance Approval including acute toxicity, iron, total suspended solids and pH.  Although the company attributed some of the exceedances to the dewatering of the open pit, a consultant hired by the company as a result of the Director’s Order noted a number of recommendations that should be implemented to improve operation of the sewage works and to maintain compliance with the final effluent limits.

United States: New Standard Of Care Document On Environmental Due Diligence (“Phase I”)

Article by Jerrold Samford and Andrea L. Rimer

Troutman Sanders LLP

The GeoProfessional Business Association (GBA) – formerly known as ASFE – recently released a new study on the standard of care for conducting Phase I environmental site assessments.  This document is the fourth in a series of studies the organization has produced since the inception of the due diligence process in the early 1990’s.  The study is an evaluation of approximately 200 Phase I reports from across the country, written between 2007 and 2010. The results of the study will be a valuable tool in determining whether a Phase I conducted during that time period meets the standard of care or not.

In completing the study, the GBA compared the Phase I reports to the elements of the ASTM Standard E1527-05, applicable during the time period of the reports, to see whether the reports included the elements of the ASTM standard. Although nearly all of the reports stated they were completed in accordance with the ASTM Standard, the committee reviewing the reports concluded that not a single report actually complied with every component required by the Standard. Consequently, the GBA study finds that strict compliance with the ASTM standard does not constitute the standard of care for conducting Phase I evaluations of commercial real estate.

The committee’s conclusion could become critical in legal actions where the issue at hand is whether appropriate environmental studies were completed prior to completion of the transaction. The GBA study could be used to show a court that because strict compliance with the ASTM Standard is not commensurate with the standard of care, a purchaser could still be in compliance with the All Appropriate Inquiry provisions of CERCLA even if some of the elements of the ASTM Standard had not been completed.

The study is available through the GeoProfessional Business Association at www.geoprofessional.org.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

This article was first published on the Troutman Sanders website.

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About the Authors

Jerrold “Jerry” Samford is an environmental compliance specialist at Troutman Sanders.  He is a certified professional geologist in the State of Virginia, a licensed professional geologist in the States of North Carolina and Kentucky.

Andrea L. Rimer is a partner at Troutman Sanders.  She has a national practice representing clients on transactional and regulatory matters involving brownfields redevelopment, hazardous site investigation and cleanup, hazardous waste management, and state and federal Superfund and voluntary remediation programs.