Part 3: Aiming to avoid spills

CNLOPB’s department of environmental affairs experienced in response

Published on February 7, 2012
The oil slick caused by a spill at the Terra Nova FPSO, as seen from the air Nov. 21, 2004. According to court documents, 170 people were mobilized in the spill response, and cleanup work continued until Nov. 28, when it was determined no oil was left on the water. — File photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

Third in a six-part series


It was early Sunday morning, Nov. 21, 2004, and still dark out, when the phone rang.

Grabbing the receiver, the Canada-Newfoundland and Lab-rador Offshore Petroleum Board’s (CNLOPB) then-chief conservation officer, Wayne Chipman, was told there had been an oil spill from the Terra Nova production and storage vessel.

It had been discovered a few hours before, at 12:36 a.m.

He went to work sussing out the details and waking up staff.

With a phone call to Petro-Canada at 4:15 a.m., the CNLOPB shut down production at Terra Nova, “because they had not,” Dave Burley told The Telegram in a recent interview. He’s the current head of the board’s department of environmental affairs.

The CNLOPB has the ability to shut down an offshore operation, if it is determined there is a serious risk to the environment.

In the 2004 case, the company had stopped the accidental oil dump and was troubleshooting, but it had not shut down overall production work at the site and, according to Burley, the CNLOPB stepped in.

“The first call made outside the board and the operator was to the chair of the Regional Environmental Emergencies Team to activate it. They provided support for us when that oil was on the water as well as afterwards,” he said. Petro-Canada followed its approved spill response plan.

Environment Canada, Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard were contacted. A week after the spill, the cleanup was still ongoing.

Offshore spills of one litre or more are recorded and logged by environmental affairs staff at the CNLOPB. The spill of crude oil at the Terra Nova field was initially estimated to be 157 barrels, but was ultimately documented at just over 1,000 barrels (165,000 litres).

A malfunctioning valve and sensor triggered the spill. Yet, in investigating, the CNLOPB’s staff found that maintenance work on the ship had been piling up prior to the incident. Some maintenance work had been noted in previous safety audits.

In 2006, Petro-Canada was fined $290,000. The impact of the production shutdown and cleanup was more costly — according to a statement made by a company lawyer, it was estimated to be $3 million.


Environmental assessments

Dealing with spill incidents like the one at Terra Nova is just one aspect of the work of Burley and the five other members of his department. All have at least 10 years’ experience in environmental affairs.

The team is responsible for the review of environmental protection plans, project-specific environmental assessments, regional strategic environmental assessments and environmental effects monitoring.

Assessments conducted by the department can include gathering and reviewing information on: weather, oceanography, ice monitoring, waste treatment and disposal, chemical selection and usage, compliance monitoring and emergency planning.

Each piece is detailed. For example, effects monitoring includes sampling sediments — with samples coming from 53 specific spots on the ocean floor for Terra Nova alone — requiring chemical and biological analysis.

Information from both single project and the broader, regional assessments can be found on the CNLOPB’s website, along with some environmental effects monitoring reports. Documents can also be viewed at the CNLOPB library, found along with the board offices in the TD Building on Water Street in St. John’s.


Public input

According to Burley, input from the public is a valuable addition to any assessment.

For example, points made by fishermen during the Orphan Basin strategic environmental assessment, paired with consultation with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, led the CNLOPB to map the so-called “Bonavista cod box,” an area off eastern Newfoundland believed to be key to the life cycle of Atlantic cod, in 2003.

Consultations on the first strategic environmental assessment for offshore western Newfoundland, published in 2005, included public meetings and input facilitated by One Ocean — a liaison organization for the fisheries and oil and gas industries.

“They wanted to have as much public participation as they possibly could,” director of One Ocean, Maureen Murphy, told The Telegram.

In those meetings, input from fishermen on the coast was used in identifying several sensitive environmental areas, including at least two lobster nurseries, Burley said.

An update of that regional environmental assessment is underway. Burley estimated work on the final documentation, an assist for future project-based assessments in the area, will run into 2013.

As for criticisms of the board’s work in safeguarding the environment, “you’d never be so arrogant as to say you know everything, but I wouldn’t say we know nothing either,” Burley said.


Wednesday: the new department of operations