Latest spill shows North still struggling to prevent and control oil events

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World Wildlife Fund Canada staff and volunteers practice the use of a boom to catch oil spills in the North. Photo Credit: WWF Canada.

The Qulliq Energy Corporation (QEC), based in Nunavut, says a faulty automated valve and loose plug were the likely culprits in a March diesel spill from a day tank used to hold fuel for the community’s power generators.

The March 15 spill saw 4,000 litres of diesel fuel leak out of the power plant’s front door in Grise Fiord, Nunavut. In a statement, QEC said staff were onsite conducting maintenance when the incident occurred and were able to contain the spill. QEC’s environmental specialist and Nunatta Environmental Services Inc. have flown to Grise Fiord with additional spill response supplies to continue remediation efforts, the company announced.

“The corporation is currently constructing a new power plant in Grise Fiord. The fuel spill occurred at the old power plant site,” QEC announced in a statement. “While safety personnel will be on the site during the environmental remediation process, community members are asked to exercise caution around the area where work is being done.”

Arctic diesel fuel is designed to work at low temperatures and evaporates faster than heavier fuels, but at the same time can be more poisonous for people, animals and plants when first released. It’s generally believed to be less damaging to the environment than the heavy fuel oil often used by large shipping vessels.

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A team from QEC says it continues to investigate what went wrong and is making all efforts to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Almost a year ago to the day, a fuel hose leaked 30,000 litres of diesel fuel at a gold mine in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut. The spill was determined to be the result of a faulty safety valve in the storage tank and employees who were not properly trained.

A series of 2017 reports on Arctic oil spills, authored by World Wildlife Fund Canada, found that the North can often be woefully unprepared for containing oil spills, despite the Government of Nunavut’s Petroleum Products Division providing each community in Nunavut with 150 feet of floating boom, 200 feet of rope, two bales of absorbent pads, four empty 205-litre drums and other equipment.

The WWF Canada report notes that some of the key challenges surrounding oil spills in the Arctic include: a low number of trained oil spill responders; poor communications infrastructure, especially phone and Internet networks; no hazardous waste disposal facilities; the climate, such as high waves and strong winds that can make it impossible to contain oil spills using floating booms.

In summer 2017, the federal government announced $175 million to be spent over five years for spill response enhancement around the Arctic Ocean. Nearly $95 million will be used to fund safety equipment, marine infrastructure, and training in Arctic coastal communities, with the goal of creating safer and more efficient resupply operations. Another $29.9 million will be used to build an Arctic National Aerial Surveillance Program Complex in Iqaluit for increased surveillance capabilities over the growing number of ships in the North.

Between 1984 and 2004, a total of 23 commercial cruise ships transited the Northwest Passage, according to the Arctic Council. But in 2017 alone, Coast Guard numbers show 93 vessels made voyages in the Arctic: 19 passenger ships and 74 cargo ships and tankers.

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