Years in, Mount Pearl oil spill still being dealt with

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Amount wasted was significant, despite no clear estimate

On March 6, 2012, nine federal investigators walked through the doors of North Atlantic Refining’s offices at 29 Pippy Place in St. John’s and began a search.
Seven enforcement officers from Environment Canada and two from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, armed with a warrant, collected records about oil spills at the company’s facility in Donovans Industrial Park in Mount Pearl.

A retention pond behind buildings in the Donovans Industrial Park is still being used to recover and prevent the spread of leaked fuel into the Power’s Pond area from the North Atlantic fuel leak. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

They were already more than a year and a half into an investigation into the discovery of oil products found running through storm sewers in the industrial park in August 2010. The oil flowed out into a nearby marsh feeding into Powers Pond.

Before the search of North Atlantic’s offices, investigators had gathered information from the provincial government on North Atlantic’s worksite, used laboratory testing to match oil found near a sewer outfall to oil at the site, conducted inspections and monitored the company’s cleanup work.  

But the case was not over.

“During the execution of the search warrant upon the business premises, North Atlantic Refining Ltd.’s legal counsel claimed that some of the documents were potentially privileged and that others were potentially not within the scope of the warrant to search,” notes documentation later filed with the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The information went to the Office of the High Sheriff and a judge would determine what was relevant. The legal back and forth continued.

On Dec. 20, 2013, the investigation, legal work and a guilty plea by the company resulted in a conviction under the Fisheries Act and a penalty against North Atlantic of $100,000 in fines.

Long-term environmental monitoring continues and, The Telegram has learned, costs associated with the spill are still being dealt with.


A sizable event

North Atlantic Refining pleaded guilty to a single charge in relation to the oil product that leaked onto its property between July 16 and Nov. 15, 2010 and from there entered the storm sewer.

In an agreed statement of facts, several potential contributors were noted: a tank overfill and a resulting 146-litre fuel spill in the summer of 2010; oil from a leak in an underground pipe occurring some point between August and November 2010, and a “plume” of oil products already in the ground at the site from a spill in the 1990s.

The statement outlines how 122,000 litres of oil and contaminated water were removed in mitigation and cleanup efforts in 2010 and 2011, but a spokeswoman for North Atlantic confirmed this week there is no estimate available on the total amount of oil spilled.

“It would be speculation to provide an estimate,” she said.

In the same year as the 2010 oil leak in Mount Pearl, the largest spill in the province’s offshore oil industry, as recorded by the CNLOPB, was 165 litres of lubricating oil.

In 2011, the largest spill was 26,400 litres of drilling mud dropped from the Henry Goodrich.

In 2012, less than 30 litres of drilling mud lost from the drilling rig GSF Grand Banks topped the list of spill incidents.

The most significant spill in the oil industry offshore Newfoundland and Labrador last year, in terms of size, is the 6,000 litres Hibernia management has estimated was lost from its offshore infrastructure at the end of December.

The amount of oil and oiled water taken out of Mount Pearl, as a result of problems at North Atlantic, is 20 times larger.

Onshore, Service NL has stated the “vast majority” of spills reported are less than 1,000 litres.


Provincial response

According to a spokeswoman with the provincial Department of Environment and Conservation, Service NL oversees environmental protection work at the North Atlantic site.

“Service NL has been aware of and monitoring issues at North Atlantic Petroleum, 23 Kyle Avenue, since November 1995,” stated a response to questions, offered in consultation with a Service NL rep.

“Estimates for the specific volume spilled were not conclusive.”

Service NL was not involved in the federal investigation started in response to events in 2010, other than to provide access to its files.

After the spill, the company submitted an action plan for a cleanup to the federal and provincial governments. The provincial Environment Department got involved at that time.

A spokeswoman for the department said it kept on top of the remediation work through assessment reports and meetings with regular status updates. Department staff continue to receive updates from the environmental monitoring.

Meanwhile, “Service NL continues to inspect this and all bulk storage facilities on an annual basis. The most recent inspection was conducted on Nov. 27, 2013.”


Municipal response

Powers Pond is where the Sunrise Trail and Arboretum Walk meet. It is where the City of Mount Pearl opened a new dog park in August 2013 and is promoted as a recreation area.

Complaints from residents sparked the initial investigation into North Atlantic. Clear signs of  followup work were noted, but information on what was going on was not being freely offered to residents.

Coun. Lucy Stoyles asked about the cleanup at a July 26, 2011 Mount Pearl city council meeting.

“I think the major problem, as far as I can see, is I think the residents — especially in Power’s Pond — that’s walking that every day, they don’t know what’s going on,” she said at the time.

“One man said to me ... he said this has been on the go a long time. You know, it’s our park and we’re out walking our animals and you know, we don’t know what’s on the go,” Stoyles said.

She asked for a public awareness campaign.

Contacted this week, Stoyles said she didn’t know if there was ever an attempt by city staff to complete a mailout, hold a public meeting or make any other move to increase awareness about the spill and cleanup. She said she did speak to city officials and returned calls to any residents who had asked her questions.

The city has been happy with the cleanup work, she added.

“I raised it (at council) because the residents raised it with me and I wanted to get some answers,” she said.

“I spoke to at least four individual families and one gentleman I had, like I said, arranged to meet. I met with him and we walked the boardwalk and that, because he was very concerned.”

You can walk from the pond area today and along the trailway, past “G-Unit” graffiti painted on the asphalt and along the wooden boardwalk.

Visible along one section of the boardwalk, behind two industrial park buildings on Sagona Avenue occupied by United Rentals and Wärtsilä Canada, there is a chain-link fence around a raised pit — a legacy of the oil leak.

It is a retention pond lined with hard plastic, meant to catch sewer outfall and collect any oil products. It is checked regularly, as part of long-term environmental monitoring.

Mount Pearl’s director of infrastructure and public works, Gerry Antle, said city staff were the first to investigate complaints of a diesel smell and oil running from the sewer outfall. The city had absorbent pads and a containment boom to try and get a handle on what was coming from the storm sewer.

“The work was the subject of investigation by provincial and federal officials and has legal implications. Hence, the city was reserved in its comments while the investigation was ongoing,” he stated, in an email response to questions this week.

Antle estimated the city spent about $130,000 on initial investigation and response work.

It will now be seeking to recover those costs, he said, but the city has yet to begin that process.

Organizations: North Atlantic Refining, Supreme Court, Office of the High Sheriff The Telegram Service NL Department of Environment and Conservation North Atlantic Petroleum United Rentals

Geographic location: Mount Pearl, North Atlantic, Newfoundland and Labrador 23 Kyle Avenue Sagona Avenue

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Recent comments

  • Corporate Psycho
    January 26, 2014 - 08:43

    Hibernia's spill went from an estimated 10 litres by the operator to 6000? Big difference. The owner of the GSF and the Goodrich is Transocean who was also owner of the Deepwater Horizon in the a Gulf of Mexico. Their worldwide safety record and reputation is dubious at best. Eventually they will have a huge spill in the offshore here. We are not even close to being prepared.

  • david
    January 25, 2014 - 10:28

    Including the latest Hibernia cover-up, there are a few dozen oil spills that are being covered up, or ignored, or 'acknowledged-but-deferred' in this province. And what are people putting the fear of god into everyone about? The immense dangers of fracking to our 'wonderful, pristine environment'. What a crowd of myopic eejots, leading an even bigger crowd of EI-addicted fools.