Sunday, March 26, 2006

Queen of the North Oil Spill Response Operation Continues

Judging by TV images of the Queen of the North spill response effort, attempts to clean up oil spewing from the wreck of the sunken vessel appear to be somewhat ineffective. This is mainly due to the nature of the oil itself: light, No. 2 diesel is virtually impossible to skim off the surface of the ocean. The best bet is probably to use sorbents, and to deploy deflective boom along sensitive shoreline. Still, booms won't work if the winds and waves whip the oil either over or under the boom, or if the boom gets ripped up. Fortunately, today's marine weather forecast bodes well for the cleanup effort and deployment of mini-subs.

Environment Canada says that a weak low pressure system west of the Queen Charlottes is expected to dissipate as it drifts northward today, Sunday. The forecast calls for cloudy periods, with a few showers. Over northern waters, moderate to strong southeasterlies are anticipated along the coast, easing as the trough moves off today. Winds will ease to light to moderate easterlies tonight. Winds will be northerly outflow of 15 knots, shifting to southerly inflow winds of 10 to 15 knots this afternoon, easing to light this evening. Overnight, the winds should rise to northerly outflow, 10 to 15 knots. The outlook for 24 hours from now is for light to moderate variable winds. All in all, then, another balmy day on the wet coast of Canada.

Regrettably, there is still no information from the authorities as to how much oil has spilled to date, or how thick it is. Precious little information has also been provided as to weather conditions, currents, tides, spill trajectory, the number of vessels and personnel involved in the operation, etc. At this stage, five days into the biggest BC marine oil spill in almost twenty years, we don't even know the coordinates, i.e. latitude and longitude, for the wreck. The only thing that's been issued is a map showing the approximate location of the wreck, just off the northeast tip of Gil Island in Wright Sound.

On Saturday evening, CTV's Vancouver affiliate, as well as Global TV in Vancouver, both showed aerial footage of four response vessels in close proximity to one another near the shoreline. Boom was strung out from one of the vessels, just trailing behind in the water. There was no evidence of any mechanical skimmers in the water, trying to collect the oil. Instead, what this viewer could see was a fairly large swath of sheen, perhaps fifty to one hundred metres in width, stretching from a point perhaps one half of a nautical mile offshore right up to the adjacent shoreline. The location of this slick would appear to indicate the position above the wreck of the sunken ship.

The CTV reporter introducing the story was heard to say that the leaking fuel covered an area "larger than Vancouver". ( Gee whiz! I sure hope the belugas at the Vancouver Acquarium have been relocated, and the entire city cordoned off! ). One hopes that precautions are being taken to protect the response vessels and their crews from any hazards associated with the presence of the diesel fuel on the surface of the water, such as noxious vapours or possible explosion. It looks good to the public to see lots of vessels and activity at the site of a high profile oil spill, but the question is: is the operation safe? If it isn't, it should be shut down immediately, because safety is paramount, always trumping image.

Meanwhile, designated "Incident Commander" Andy Ackerman of the BC Environment Ministry seems to have taken on the mantle of official spokesperson for the responders, attempted to provide a relatively upbeat assessment of the response effort on both the CTV and Global newscasts. He reported that four booms, totalling 5500 feet in length, plus a U-shaped boom at the site of the wreck, had been deployed so far. The diesel is, he says, "breaking up", the sheen has spread ( That doesn't sound terribly positive to me! ), and officials were keeping a "really close watch" on the situation ( i.e. That's all they can do, really - stand by and look busy! ). All in all, he considered the situation to be "very fortunate", and was "very pleased how we're moving along". He went on to say that "We're moving along much quicker than we thought we would be." ( I wonder what that is supposed to mean, since the oil is apparently still leaking from the sunken hulk, and the authorities have not given any indication that one ounce of oil has been removed from the surface. )

It was also reported on CTV that the barge carrying the two mini-subs from North Vancouver was expected to arrive on scene Saturday night at 8 PM local time ( 0400 hrs Zulu Time Sunday ), and to get to work examining the hulk on Sunday. That operation is expected to take up to a week.

For its part, the Transportation Safety Board reported Saturday that when the vessel ran aground, she apparently sustained damage all along her starboard side, from bow to stern.

Canadian Press reported Saturday that local people from Hartley Bay are seeing oil on the shoreline. "Rocks are slippery and you can see it (oil ) on the seaweed". The properties of diesel fuel are such that half of it evaporates in the water within 48 hours; unfortunately, the other half can be very toxic to wildlife in the vicinity. We are told that "(t)he community harvests halibut, salmon, cod, seaweed and shellfish such as clams and mussels..." The salmon run is expected to start in June.

It remains a total mystery as to how such a large ship, with such a highly-skilled and experienced crew, and so much sophisticated navigational gear on board, could be so far off course for so long without either of the two crew on the bridge noticing that anything was amiss. A very rough calcuation indicates that from the time the vessel left Grenville Channel to the moment of impact, twelve minutes probably elapsed. It seems that during all this time the vessel was headed directly for Juan Point on Gil Island, where it eventually ran up against an object roughly the size of Salt Spring Island. So, it looks like the automatic pilot might be the culprit, as this faulty course is what you would end up with if you just continued along the course that got you through narrow Grenville Channel. One possibility is that the retiring crew, which we are told had been replaced shortly before the incident occured, neglected to tell the replacement crew on the bridge that the automatic pilot was still on. Either that, or the replacement crew forgot to change course when it came on duty. But, how that crew could apparently go twelve minutes without noticing anything was wrong on the GPS, the radar, the compass, the sonar, or even by using visual sight, is one of the big questions that remains unanswered. Because, when she hit Gil Island, it seems that the Queen of the North was a full five degrees off course, with tragic results. Reports suggest that even some passengers could see Gil Island to starboard before impact; if they could, why couldn't the two crewmembers on board? Were they drunk or on drugs, or what? Thes are the kinds of questions the investigators will be asking.


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