The barge is gone, but there’s still work to do
On Sunday, after it was righted, temporarily patched and emptied of fuel, a tugboat pulled the 28- metre-long, 58-year-old Pitts Carillon, a small barge owned by Galcon Marine, out of Picton Bay and to its home port in Toronto.
The majority of the oily liquid the barge had released when it sank late in the evening of Thursday, March 23, more than a week earlier, had either been cleaned up, evaporated or dissipated, the remaining fluid no longer appearing on the water’s surface, although trace amounts can still be found mixed into the water of the bay.
Galcon’s barge is gone. So is the team from the Eastern Canada Response Corporation (ECRC), hired by McKeil Marine— the company that had chartered the barge—to clean up the spill. But there is still work to be done.
The first organization to respond was the Canadian Coast Guard, who were informed early Friday morning of the incident.
Carol Launderville, representing the Coast Guard, says her department holds to the estimate that 20 – 30 litres of liquid were spilled, a relatively minor volume. However, she encourages the public to report any sightings of potential oil spills, such as a sheen on the water, as some members of the public had described, by calling the Coast Guard’s reporting network at 1-800-265-0237.
Now, several organizations are involved in monitoring the water, both in the bay and at the water treatment plan.
Gary Wheeler, speaking for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) says the ministry has been working with the municipality to ensure the water treatment plant has safe, potable water. They are also working with the Canadian Coast Guard and Environment and Climate Change Canada to monitor the water in the bay.
The ministry has been testing both water from the bay and the water treatment plant. Results from the plant are clean, and show the water is safe to drink.
That means that once the water intake is running again, the health unit can remove the boil water advisory.
However, in testing the surface water, Wheeler says ministry staff have found “the presence of a mixture consistent with that of a heavier petroleum product, along with that of a diesel fuel.”
On Friday, the MOECC also issued an order to McKeil Marine, under the Ontario Water Resources Act, to conduct short- and long-term monitoring of water in the bay following the spill. McKeil has hired Pinchin Environmental for that task.
On Wednesday, mayor Robert Quaiff declared that the County was in a state of emergency.
On Thursday, he added that the Hastings Prince Edward Public Health unit had called for a boilwater advisory in Picton and Bloomfield. Both towns are served by the processing plant that takes water from the bay. Quaiff has been holding daily press meetings since, updating the public about the boil-water advisory.
County spokesperson Lisa McLennan says the boil water advisory was issued by the Hastings Prince Edward Public Health unit not because of a potential contamination, but because it was impossible to test the water being hauled from Wellington, Belleville and Tyendinaga. When the intake valve was closed, the County began to work with its neighbours to bring water in. The boil water advisory is a precautionary measure.
McLennan says that by wording the situation as a state of emergency, the County mobilized a provincial ministerial support system.
“In a situation that poses a heightened risk to the health and safety of residents, such as risking the contamination of a municipality’s water distribution system, a municipality may declare a state of emergency in order to ensure that resources are mobilized from the Provincial government,” says McLennan. “The wording was not chosen at random.”
The incident took front and centre in a meeting of a committee of council on Thursday. Council agreed to push several agenda items off its plate to address the pressing item.
“I do not think it is unreasonable to expect to have safe drinking water in my home,” one deputant, Picton resident Diane Martin, told council. “We cannot risk polluting Picton Bay any further. The result of years of poor decision making is already lying at the bottom of the bay. We are supposed to learn from the mistakes of prior generations, not to continue blindly following the same path.”
Picton councillor Lenny Epstein introduced a motion to council to withdraw support from the terminals and ask staff to find the best way to protect the County’s land use and most importantly, protect its drinking water.
“We have to take our responsibility to drinking water very seriously. It’s one of the only things that we can be held personally liable for as councillors, as per the Safe Drinking Water Act. And so we have to make sure that we are doing everything we can to ensure we’re not exposed,” Epstein said. “[We shouldn’t show] support for the expansion when there are issues in terms of the current operations that still need to be addressed.”
Epstein’s view was not shared universally by his fellow councillors.
Picton’s other councillor, Treat Hull, pointed to the County’s source water protection plan as the problem the municipality must address.
“We have a source water protection plan that is demonstrably inadequate,” Hull said. “We have a minor spill, and we have a boil water advisory. We have thousands of personal watercraft, the freight traffic in and out of the cement plant, an ongoing, year-round ferry operation… In a very shallow, very restricted bay with lots of activity, is that a fundamentally inadequate source of safe drinking water on a go-forward basis?”
Councillor David Harrison objected to blaming the Picton Terminals for the incident.
The Pitts Carillon, which was built in 1958, had been involved in a minor collision once before. In 2002, a tug pulling the barge had run slightly off course and collided with a crib light south of Broder Island, a small piece of land by Morrisburg in the St. Lawrence River.
According to the report by the Transportation Safety Board, “The forward starboard corner of the barge Pitts Carillon was indented and water entered through a side shell fracture.”
Daniel Savoie, speaking for Transport Canada, says his department has inspected the Pitts Carillon to ensure that the temporary fix was sufficient to get it safely back to its home port. They are still investigating the incident, says Savoie, and “the department will take appropriate action should any contraventions of the Canada Shipping Act be found.”
Council voted to withdraw support for the Terminals, although for the moment, it is merely a symbolic gesture. Meanwhile, neighbours are still concerned.
Michael Hymus, whose property borders the Terminals to the east, has been trying to raise awareness about their practices for several years, since he noticed in 2014 that his pond, which receives runoff from the terminals, was inundated with salt from improperly stored road salt.
“It’s bittersweet,” says Hymus, of council’s change of heart. “I never wanted this to happen. It’s terrible that we needed a spill like this to bring awareness to the community, and I’m glad that it was a minor spill… I’m happy that the people of Prince Edward County are more aware of what’s going on and how it could affect the community in the future.”
Hymus says that he and other business owners are worried about how the optics of this situation will affect the tourism industry in the County. He noted that a customer planning to come to the inn he owns in Wellington had called with concerns about water quality because she is pregnant.
Terry Murphy, head of Quinte Conservation, says that his staff are working with the ministries of environment and natural resources along with Environment Canada, but that until the various organizations have had a chance to assess the bay, they won’t make a statement on whether there has been any environmental damage or the extent of it.
However, Murphy suggested the risk of damage is likely minimal.
“When you think about it, the amount of fuel that was spilt was pretty small. We’re talking a can that every boat has that’s just out there fishing. It’s not an oil spill like you would see on TV,” he says.