Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Queen of the North Oil Spill: the Initial 40 Hours

A day and a half after the sinking of BC Ferries' Queen of the North ferry, the oil spill cleanup effort continues. This blog entry tries to piece together what we know and don't know about the incident, based on available information. It will focus on efforts to prevent oil from escaping from the ship, to clean up any oil that does escape, and to prevent environmental damage.

The Queen of the North sank off of Gil Island in Wright Sound, 135 kms south of Prince Rupert, near the community of Hartley Bay on the northern B. C. coast, at approximately 08:43Z on Wednesday, 22 March, 2006. The Queen of the North is a 125 metre, 8806 tonne vessel; it was built in Germany in 1969, and had a draw of 4.9 metres. It was one of the larger vessels in BC Ferries' thirty-five vessel fleet. It is thought to have struck a rock and started to list badly an hour before sinking, in foul weather ( 35 knot winds, 2 metre waves ). Fortunately, with the help of the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir Wilfred Laurier and a fishing boat, the Lone Star, a total of 99 passengers and crew were rescued. However, two additional passengers are missing, and presumed to have perished with the ship.

The vessel is submerged, and so there is an environmental issue here. The area is rich in terms of biological diversity, and with the severe weather that can be experienced in the region at this time of year, even a relatively small slick could spread rapidly.

The response partners, consisting of Canadian Coast Guard, Environment Canada and other branches of government, plus Burrard Clean from the private sector, are engaged in aerial and sea-based monitoring and surveillance of the area around the wreck as we speak, to look for evidence of oil slicks on the sea surface as well as in the water column. The Queen of the North had 220,000 litres of No. 2 diesel fuel on board, plus 23,000 litres of lubricating oil. There were also a total of sixteen vehicles on board, which could be leaking gasoline and engine oil.

Diesel fuel is a lighter type of oil. Paul Ross, Environment Canada's oil spill expert on the scene, is quoted in Thursday's Vancouver Sun as saying that the ferry's fuel evaporates faster than bunker fuel oil, losing as it does 40% of its volume within the first 48 hours. On the other hand, diesel is more toxic than bunker. Ross is also quoted as saying that the rough seas predicted for the area will help disperse the oil. Strong to gale force winds are predicted for the area overnight Thursday and into Friday morning.

On Wednesday afternoon CBC Newsworld showed video shot from a plane of what definitely looked like a rainbow sheen of oil in the area. An RCMP officer being interviewed on the program via telephone claimed that the slick was 8 sq. kms in size, and that it was spreading. Don Rodden, Coast Guard's oil spill spokesperson on the west coast, mentioned in one news report that the oil had formed into windrows, and was probably evaporating rapidly. BC Environment Minister Barry Penner said Thursday that the slick appears to be breaking up. Nonetheless, the authorities are considering deploying protective booms along the coast, to prevent any leaked oil from reaching sensitive shoreline and resources. The First Nations people of Hartley Bay will no doubt be concerned for their traditional eulachon fishery. The herring spawn usually occurs around this time of year as well. The authorities could well be considering local shellfish closings at this time. For the longer-term, potential interference of the oil with salmon runs would also be an area of concern. So far no dead seabirds or other wildlife have been reported.

One of the items to be determined is whether the vessel's fuel tanks were punctured when she ran aground or as she hit the bottom. Another question would be: was this an instantaneous release of oil, or is oil continuing to flow from the hulk lying on the bottom of the ocean? Presumably, at the first opportunity divers will go down with underwater cameras or a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) and conduct a survey as to the extent of the damage and the environmental risk. Eventually, all oil on board may have to be removed, to avoid the potential for leaks due to corrosion.

The wreck is apparently in 1200 feet of water; at that depth, the surrounding water may be cold enough to gel the oil such that it won't flow easily. On the other hand, if it is released from the tanks, it could float to the surface in the form of tar balls. Undoubtedly the oil spill response experts on the scene are examining these and other scenarios as we speak.

Gil Island's coordinates are Lat 53°12'00", Long 129°13'59". It is home to a whale research station called Cetacealab ( The co-director of Cetacealab, Hermann Meuter, reports that the arrival of the first northern orcas of the season is approaching; they come to the area to feed on salmon.


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