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Environmental charges laid against Husky Energy Inc. and Husky Oil Operations Limited

Environment Canada and Climate Change (ECCC) recently laid a number of charges against Husky Energy Inc. and Husky Oil Operations Limited relating to the blended heavy crude-oil spill, in July 2016, which impacted the North Saskatchewan River, near Maidstone, Saskatchewan. The Government of Saskatchewan also filed a charge under the Environmental Management and Protection Act, 2010. These charges result from a 19-month joint federal-provincial investigation.

There are a total of ten charges which include one charge under subsection 36(3) of the federal Fisheries Act, one charge under subsection 38(5) of the federal Fisheries Act, six charges under subsection 38(6) of the federal Fisheries Act, one charge under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, and one charge under Saskatchewan’s Environmental Management and Protection Act, 2010.

The first appearance was at the end of March at the Lloydminster Provincial Court office.  According to the Premier of Saskatchewan’s office, the company faces a possible maximum $1 million fine.

Shoreline cleanup for the Maidstone-area oil spill (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Saskatchewan Minister of Environment Dustin Duncan said the spill led to significant changes in the provincial Pipelines Act; changes that include greater regulation, auditing powers, penalty provisions and licensing flowlines.

“We take this very seriously. There, to my knowledge, hasn’t been a charge with respect to the unintended release of oil from a pipeline in the province’s history,” he told reporters in late March.

Duncan said the site cleanup was completed by the end of last year, but Husky will have to work with the province’s Water Security Agency and the Ministry of Environment to make sure nothing else is required.  He said he expects full co-operation.

“In the last year, despite a very unsettling situation, Husky was very responsive when it came to the cleanup but also responding to the concerns by First Nations, by communities along the river, as well as to the requests that were made by the government department,” Duncan said.

All charges are currently before the Court, and they have not yet been proven. Under Canadian law, those charged are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Saskatchewan’s Water Security Agency, which has a responsibility for the specific charge under the provincial Environmental Management and Protection Act, 2010, will not be commenting further at this time.

 

Bitumen floats longer than expected, Natural Resources Canada research shows

As reported in the Vancouver Sun, researchers at Natural Resources Canada are discovering important characteristics of bitumen (the un-processed form of crude oil from the Alberta oil sands) and its interactions with the environment.  Information from the research will be useful in the development of strategies and technologies to clean-up bitumen in the event that is leaks into the environment as a result of a pipeline leak or tanker spill.

One important question with respect to bitumen is whether it sinks or floats when it hits the water. The short answer is it floats, most of the time, according to a growing body of research being compiled by Natural Resources Canada scientists.

Researcher Heather Dettman, a senior scientist with Natural Resources Canada in Devon, Alta., is leading a team looking into some of those questions in research under the federal government’s world-class tanker safety program and ocean protection program.

Postmedia caught up with her and a spokesman from Western Canada Marine Response Corp. to talk about answers.

Bitumen

Q: What is diluted bitumen?

A: Bitumen is the basic, tar-like petroleum product extracted from the Athabasca oilsands, which are oil deposits that were first formed deep underground, but were moved closer to the surface by geological movements of the earth. That allowed microbes to degrade the components that make up gasoline and diesel leaving only its asphalt components. Producers inject those lighter components back into bitumen to make it thin enough to flow through pipelines.

Q: How would rough seas change the behaviour of diluted bitumen?

A: “From a density perspective, it will be floating unless it’s really stormy, then it can go anywhere, the same as any other petroleum product,” Dettman said.  If a storm pushed bitumen ashore, it would pose the problem of having to clean it up on land.

Q: Has there ever been a spill of diluted bitumen on the coast?

A: The biggest spill that the Western Canada Marine Response Corp. has dealt with involved a mix of bitumen and synthetic oil, said spokesman Michael Lowry.  That was the 2007 puncture of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline in Burnaby that led to about 100 tonnes of oil flowing down storm drains into Burrard Inlet.  In nice weather and close to the industry-funded spill responders’ facilities, Lowry said they were able to recover 90 per cent of the oil.

“Those are ideal conditions; I can’t extrapolate those to other spills for sure,” Lowry said.

Kalamazoo River diluted bitumen spill clean-up

Q: How do you clean up a bitumen spill?

A: Lowry said methods haven’t changed much over the years. Chemical dispersants, in situ burning and mechanical recovery are the techniques that responders use, but since the first two require government permission, the corporation focuses on mechanical recovery — booming and skimming. From its 2007 experience, Lowry said responders learned that its brush skimmers — conveyors that rotate heavy plastic brushes over the surface to collect oil — were particularly effective.

“Conditions play a huge role in recovery,” Lowry said. “High winds are going to impact your ability to respond and rough seas definitely impede your ability to respond.”

Q: What research is being done to improve spill response?

A: Lowry said new tools are being developed, such as advanced booming systems that perform better under tougher conditions, which the corporation deploys.  In the meantime, Lowry said Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada are putting resources into studying the topic.

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

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.

B.C. First Nation says it has created world-class oil spill response plan

As reported by CTV News, A British Columbia First Nation has released a plan it says will give it a leading role in oil spill prevention and response on the province’s central coast.

A report from the Heiltsuk Nation calls for the creation of an Indigenous Marine Response Centre capable of responding within five hours along a 350 kilometre stretch of the coast.

The centre proposal follows what the report calls the “inadequate, slow and unsafe” response to the October 2016 grounding of the tug the Nathan E. Stewart that spilled about 110,000 litres of diesel and other contaminants.

Bella Bella Oil Spill (Photo Credit: HEILTSUK FIRST NATION)

Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett says during that disaster her people saw what senior governments had described as world-class spill response and she says the Heiltsuk promised themselves that this would never happen in their territory again.

The report says the proposed centre, on Denny Island across from Bella Bella, and satellite operations dotted along the central coast, would need a total investment of $111.5 million to be operational by next summer.

Unlike current response programs which the report says are limited specifically to spills, the new centre would answer all marine calls with the potential for oil contamination, including groundings, fires, bottom contacts and capsizings.

“(The centre’s) effectiveness hinges on a fleet of fast response vessels capable of oil clean up and containment, and a tug and barge system providing storage and additional oil spill clean-up capabilities,” the report says.

The barge would also be equipped with enough safety gear, provisions and living space to allow a response team to remain on site for up to three weeks without outside support.

The marine response centre would have annual operating costs of $6.8 million, covering a full-time staff and crew of 37.

“From Ahousaht with the Leviathan II to Gitga’at with the Queen of the North to Heiltsuk with the Nathan E. Stewart, Indigenous communities have shown that we are and will continue to be the first responders to marine incidents in our waters,” says the report, signed by Slett and hereditary Chief Harvey Humchitt.

Indigenous rescuers were first on the scene when six people died after the whale-watching vessel the Leviathan II capsized north of Tofino in 2015. Two people were killed when the Queen of the North hit an island and sank in 2006 west of Hartley Bay and First Nations helped in the rescue.

“The time has come to meaningfully develop our capacity to properly address emergencies in our territories as they arise,” the report says.

U.S. EPA Assesses Sunken, Leaking Marine Vessels

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) continues its response to Hurricanes Maria and Irma in close coordination with federal, commonwealth, territory, and local partners. EPA remains focused on environmental impacts and potential threats to human health as well as the safety of those in the affected areas.

“Our role is to assist both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to minimize environmental damage from boats leaking gasoline, fuel or other contaminants,” said EPA Regional Administrator Pete Lopez. “We are doing this in a way that respects the vessel owner’s rights while still protecting people from spills and hazardous substances that might be onboard the vessels.”

Marine Vessels Recovery Operations

EPA is supporting Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the U.S. Coast Guard in marine vessel recovery work. Teams continue to locate, assess and retrieve sunken, damaged and derelict vessels around Puerto Rico and the USVI.  We are also assisting with the recycling and disposal of recovered oil and hazardous materials from the vessels.

The U.S. EPA’s support role includes recording the vessel’s location and collecting information such as the name of the vessel and identification number, condition, impact to surrounding areas and/or sensitive/protected habitats (e.g. mangroves, coral reefs) for future recovery missions and owner notifications.  A higher priority is placed on vessels found to be actively leaking fuel or hazardous materials, where containment and absorbent booms are placed to decrease contamination.

Once the damaged vessels are brought to shore, or are processed on a staging barge, EPA will be handling various hazardous materials for recycling and disposal, including petroleum products (oil, gas or diesel fuel), batteries, and e-waste, which can harm the environment if they’re not removed from the waters. EPA will also recycle or dispose of any “household hazardous wastes”, such as cleaners, paints or solvents and appliances from the vessels. It is important to properly dispose of these items to prevent contamination to the aquatic ecosystem.

Vessels are being tagged by assessment teams with a sticker requesting that owners contact the U.S. Coast Guard to either report their vessel’s removal, or to request U.S. Coast Guard assistance in its removal. There is no cost, penalty or fine associated with the removal of the vessels.

As of November 16, 2017,

  • 340 vessels were identified as being impacted in Puerto Rico
  • 589 vessels were identified as being impacted in the U.S. Virgin Islands

The effects of an spills from marine vessels will depend on a variety of factors including, the quantity and type of liquid (i.e., fuel, oil) spilled, and how it interacts with the marine environment. Prevailing weather conditions will also influence the liquid’s physical characteristics and its behaviour. Other key factors include the biological and ecological attributes of the area; the ecological significance of key species and their sensitivity to pollution as well as the time of year. It is important to remember that the clean-up techniques selected will also have a bearing on the environmental effects of a spill.

Advance Technology Camera spots hidden Oil Spills

As reported in the New Scientist, a new kind of polarising camera is available that can detect otherwise invisible oil sheens.

Like many oil imagers, the Pyxis camera sees the infrared radiation emitted by all objects.  That is important because there is often a temperature difference between oil and water.  However, if there isn’t one, thermal imagers don’t work.  So the Pyxis also detects differences between the way oil and water scatter light.  Thanks to this differing polarisation, it works not only when the oil and water are the same temperature – but also in pitch darkness.

Infrared polarimetry has been used in astronomy to help identify distant stellar objects. Polaris Sensor Technologies, based in Alabama, has modified the technology for a new use.

“The optical system and the physics behind it are very complex,” says David Chenault, President of Polaris Sensor Technologies.  “We started building infrared polarimeters several decades ago, but they were bulky and not capable of looking at dynamic scenes.” Only in the past few years did it become possible to significantly shrink the sensor – now roughly the size of a fist – and make it capable of imaging moving scenes. That is important for detecting oil on water.

The new camera can see spills invisible to the naked eye from 2 kilometres away.  Its size means it can be mounted on a small drone or other robot.

Doug Helton of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Emergency Response Division says these cameras could augment NOAA satellite networks, which detect and track suspected oil spills.  While they can spot even small spills, visual confirmation is crucial to rule out false positives. “Wind shadow may look like an oil slick,” he says.

Confirmation is usually done by people in a helicopter or plane, so that is where a drone-mounted camera could save a lot of time.

The camera can also spot and track oil washed up on beaches. Typically, this is a time-consuming task that must be done by people on the ground.

The sensor passed extensive tests with crude oil and diesel in different wave conditions at the massive Ohmsett test facility pool in New Jersey and at an actual spill off Santa Barbara, California, in 2015.  Russell Chipman at the University of Arizona says this is a significant development. “The costs of polarimeters are decreasing,” he says, and the miniaturisation and commercialisation of infrared polarimetric sensors means this technology can now be deployed widely to detect all kinds of oil slicks.

While Polaris is currently concentrating on oil detection, more applications for the camera are likely to be discovered when it goes into mass production, anticipated early next year.