Oonagh O'Connor, Living Oceans Society, joins Gregor Craigie - CBC - On the Island
Gregor Craigie: They were on the water yesterday in Robson Bight. Salvage crews began work on lifting thousands of litres of diesel fuel and hydraulic oil off the bottom of the ecological reserve, which is located off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. Two summers ago heavy equipment and almost 20,000 litres of fuel and oil fell off a barge and into the waters of the bight. That sparked concerns about the whale sanctuary in that area. For a while there was a debate about whether it had to be cleaned up. That was then, and yesterday the cleanup started.
Oonagh O'Connor is a senior official with Living Oceans Society. She was on the water yesterday observing the salvage activity, and she is on the line this morning to tell us more.
Oonagh O'Connor, good morning to you.
Oonagh O'Connor: Good morning, Gregor.
Craigie: So what happened yesterday? Can you walk us through the events?
O'Connor: Well, yesterday, from our perspective, it was a little bit slow-moving, because we were just watching, but from the engineers' perspective and the companies that are involved in this salvage, there was lots going on. They've got some giant anchors in place holding a barge with a crane on it. They had an ROV down at the bottom of the sea bed looking for the pieces that they're going to remove from the sea bed. They've just getting, basically, all the pieces in place in order to actually do the lift. They were hoping to do one of the lifts yesterday, but the wind came out and time just ran out, so the plan is now for today to lift up the hydraulic oil that's down there and see how that goes. It's a huge container of hydraulic oil. There's maybe as much as 1,400 litres on it, so they're going to try and lift that first, and then if all goes well, they're going to lift the fuel truck in a day or two from now.
Craigie: Do you get any sense from them what state that's in - well, all of it, but including what they're first going to lift up, the container with the hydraulic oil in it?
O'Connor: Well, the container looks.... As I say, it's closed. It looks as if it's intact. It's the same with the fuel truck. I mean, that's from underwater footage. It appears that it's intact. Of course, nobody knows what's going on, on the inside, but from the outside, the external appearance, it appears to be intact.
It seems like they have all the pieces in place to make it as safe as possible. They're going to lower down a huge metal container over top of both the hydraulic oil container and the fuel truck, and when they're getting lifted, they'll be contained within that safety compartment, so if anything does escape, it should be held within that metal box.
Craigie: So what are the risks involved, then, if there is a containment system in place? Is it fairly minimal, the risk that any fuel might go out and get beyond that?
O'Connor: Well, it's hard to say. I don't want to be over confident, because anything can happen. There are unforeseen events that can occur. You know, there's going to be huge changes in pressure as the truck rises to the surface of the ocean. We don't really know, but hopefully.... They've done everything they can to minimize the risks that will be involved. They also have Burrard Clean on site. They have some boom on site in case there is a release. You know, really, it's the first time for this kind of operation, but the companies that are doing it have great experience in very difficult situations, so hopefully.... It seems like they know what they're doing.
Craigie: If all goes as planned, when this is over, will all of the petroleum products have been removed during this cleanup?
O'Connor: No, they won't. The plan and the contract is to remove the largest sources of petrochemicals - so the fuel truck, which had approximately...well, we don't know how much is in it, but it could hold 10,000 litres; then the container of hydraulic oil, which had a potential volume of 1,400 litres. Those were the two biggest sources, and they're getting removed.
There is 11 pieces altogether, so that would mean that nine pieces will remain on the bottom. It is unfortunate that everything is not getting taken out, but you know, the decision-makers had to decide about priorities. Anyways, this is what they've decided to do. Ultimately, it's just great that they're even removing what they are, because at first, there was talk about just leaving it all there, so we're glad they're at least addressing the two largest sources. I mean, it would be even better if they were taking everything, but....
Craigie: Do you think if this goes well there might be a renewed push to get everything removed in another year or so?
O'Connor: I'm not sure. I would think that if they were going to remove it, it should happen now, because all the equipment's up here. It's a huge operation. The Coast Guard's out there. DFO is out there. The Ministry of Environment's out there. We're out there. There's Burrard Clean. There's a major amount of resources here right now, and if it were going to happen, I think it would happen now.
Craigie: The big concern, of course, is the impact on sea life in the area. Any idea what kind of activity is happening in the area, whether it's orca, whales or others?
O'Connor: Yes, we chose this time of year because of the...to reduce the likelihood of orcas being in the area, because they were one of the biggest concerns - sea birds as well. They're not as frequent in the area right now as they are at other times of the year. However, there have been orcas around in the last week, and also, on Monday there were transient orcas in the area. None were seen yesterday, though. DFO is out there monitoring. Cetus Society from Alert Bay is also on the water watching for dolphins and marine mammals, and if there are some in the area, you know, that will be communicated before the lift occurs, and then the lift would be held off.
Craigie: You'd delay it until any big marine mammals were out of the area.
O'Connor: Oh, yes, I believe that would be the case. Once the lift is occurring, then an effort would be made to actually deter the marine mammals from the area, but before the lift occurs.... It wouldn't happen if there were marine mammals in the area. However, if they came into the area while the lift was occurring, then they would have to be cared out of the way. There's a plan for that too.
Craigie: Well, Oonagh, it's good to get an update from you this morning. Any rough idea on the time line? Point taken that it's all in flux, but when, ideally, is the cleanup expected to be finished?
O'Connor: Lots of people are hoping by the weekend. However, the weather is a big unknown factor. As a matter of fact, I've heard it's going to be blowing gale force today, which would mean even today's plans would be put on hold for another day. We're at the mercy of the weather, and so we're hoping they'll be out, you know, by Monday at the latest.
Craigie: Thanks for this, Oonagh. Nice to talk to you.
O'Connor: Okay, thanks, Gregor.