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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Oil Barge Leaking Underwater

Air Date: Week of

The Canadian government is racing against time attempting to salvage an old sunken barge that is leaking oil and toxic chemicals off the coast of Prince Edward Island. Steve Curwood asks Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Henk Vun Laywin for an update on the costly salvage operation.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In eastern Canada, nerves are on edge for a daring salvage operation. The Canadian government will soon attempt to raise a barge loaded with 50 tons of oil, some of it laced with highly toxic PCBs. The barge, called the Irving Whale and owned by the Irving Oil Company, sank in a storm in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Prince Edward Island about 25 years ago. In recent years the wreck has started to leak, endangering already battered fishing grounds and tourism. Later this month a costly and controversial salvage operation will try to lift the barge from its watery grave without spilling more of its toxic contents. I spoke with CBC reporter Henk Vun Laywin about what's at stake.

VUN LAYWIN: Although this is nothing the size or proportion of the Exxon Valdez, which I guess your American listeners would be more familiar with, it poses a serious risk. The tourism industry of Prince Edward Island, a lot of beaches up here, the provincial revenues get jacked up big time by the tourists. And also the marine life in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, lucrative snow crab and lobster for the fishermen; if that gets soiled or ruined, if the beaches get soiled or ruined, a provincial economy could be at stake.

CURWOOD: The barge has been at the bottom of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, though, for more than 25 years. Why is the government so interested in moving it right now this year?

VUN LAYWIN: Last year the salvage team was in place to lift the Irving Whale, when suddenly the Irving Company phones Ottawa and says oops, by the way, there's also PCBs in the heating system of the Irving Whale. And of course the government here, the Federal government, said hey, now that we have PCBs of course only more the reason to get this thing up as fast as we can.

CURWOOD: But some environmentalists there don't want the government to raise the barge in the plan that's scheduled for the end of this month.

VUN LAYWIN: Right. When this whole issue of the PCBs came up last year, an environmental group known as SVP in Quebec went to court seeking an interim court injunction to stop the lift last summer, saying look, Ottawa's environmental assessment of this was hurried and shallow. A Federal court judge in Montreal agreed, and the salvage operation was aborted last summer and the salvage team went home.

CURWOOD: But what is it that the environmental group wants? They don't want to lift it at all: Or how do they want to address this problem?

VUN LAYWIN: This year, SVP, the anti-pollution group from Quebec, again went to the Federal courts and said hey, we would like it if you'd pump the PCBs out of the barge before you lift it. Because if you lift it, you're going to jar the PCBs loose and marine life is going to be saturated in PCBs. However, at this point in time the Federal court, another Federal court judge in Montreal, said hey, I'm not buying this one, I'm going to dismiss this application. Ottawa says hey, we've got suctioning dredges, we can, you know, Hoover these PCBs out of the area if they spill. The barge isn't going to rupture. We're confident of that. And it looks like now, I mean, judicially speaking, that's Ottawa and the salvage team have the green light to do this this summer.

CURWOOD: I wonder how much all this is costing.

VUN LAYWIN: Last year's, I guess, attempt to get it up, all the preparatory work before it was stalled, was in the vicinity of $17, $18 million. This year, to get the salvage team back and get the critter up will be $14 million. So you're looking at about $30 million in total. At this point in time it's taxpayer's money. Now, having said that, Ottawa is quick to tell you they're going to try and access a fund called the Ship's Source Oil Pollution Fund, and that was set up in the 1970s by oil companies themselves that could be drawn from to pay for any cleanups like the one we're going to have this summer. So if Ottawa is hopeful, although not guaranteeing anything yet that they can get the money from this fund, from the private companies, to pay for the salvage attempt. But at this stage of the game, $30 million to the taxpayer.

CURWOOD: Henk Vun Laywin is a reporter with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He spoke to us from the CBC Bureau in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Thanks for joining us.

VUN LAYWIN: Any time.



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