Barge sinking frays nerves around Picton Bay
In the late hours of Thursday evening, a barge pulled into the port at Picton Terminals. Then it began to take on water. The crew of the tug boat pulling the barge noticed the boat listing to one side, and began pumping water from vessel. To no avail.
Early on Friday morning, the Canadian Coast Guard was called in. The Coast Guard manages marine traffic, accidents and spills.
Staff from the Prescott office arrived on Friday to assess the situation and will stay on the scene as the barge is recovered and removed, and until the area is completely cleaned up.
They worked with water and wastewater staff from Prince Edward County, who noticed a sheen on the water. Concerned about a potential fuel leak, a boom was placed around the vessel to control the spread of pollution that could affect drinking water quality for the town of Picton and village of Bloomfield.
In response Mayor Robert Quaiff activated the County Emergency Control Group to heighten the County’s readiness to protect the water supply.
Workers later found the spill was small, and although the water plant continues hourly monitoring until cleanup is complete, neither the Coast Guard nor the County is concerned this will affect drinking water quality. Currently the County considers the risk “quite low”.
“The sheen adjacent to the barge appears to be from the emulsified oil from the surface and interior of the barge,” says the coast guard’s Carol Launderville. “Eastern Canada Response Corporation worked to remove the majority of that the emulsified product that was contained around the barge. The sheen itself is small and non-recoverable.”
Approximately 1,100 litres of fuel remain on the vessel in a double walled tank according to a statement from the municipality. It says precautions are being taken to ensure that no fuel is released in the recovery operations.
“In accordance with the Operations Contingency Plan, the water system reservoirs have been filled in order to maximize the system’s ability to sustain any potential treatment plant shutdown. Water operators are monitoring the plant regularly for any evidence of contamination approaching the intake, and the municipality is prepared to stop taking water from the Bay if the situation requires it,” from the County statement.
“Should additional contaminants enter the Bay, the municipality is prepared to declare a state of emergency and implement further procedures to protect the safety of the Picton-Bloomfield Drinking Water System.”
According to the company’s communications manager, Heidi Pereira, the barge was being used as a temporary dock on which to do work. Many assumed it was another barge being used to ferry equipment and aggregate to a wind turbine project on Amherst Island. That barge is much larger and was not affected by this incident. The Pitts Carillion was empty when it began to sink. It will return to its home port in Toronto once it is recovered.
As a marine transportation company, Pereira says the company is prepared to manage incidents like this, although they are infrequent.
Pereira says that while the company had commissioned divers to examine the submerged barge, they could not find the cause of the leak.
Divers did confirm, however, that a fuel tank hadn’t been breached.
“In terms of contamination, the sheen was from a minor amount, less than 20 to 30 litres,” says Pereira, referring to the slick observed on the ice and surface water of the bay. “The barge itself is not leaking. It could be fuel, it could be hydraulic fluid. There’s equipment on barges all the time, so it could be any type of fluid that was on board at the time.”
According to staff from the Ministry of Environment, although they are monitoring the situation, they have not been involved with managing the incident.
Terminals owner Ben Doornekamp responded to concerns with an appearance on the County radio program Grapevine. He explained the incident was low risk.
Doornekamp, whose relationship with the County has had a pitch and roll, said his company was not responsible for the damage, or any contamination that followed, although they offered help.
“In our position, because we don’t own the asset, we’re more of an observer,” Doornekamp said. “When we do observe, we have all of our containment structures and spill kits on site. We’re not experts in cleanup.”
Doornekamp admitted the incident gives fresh ammunition to the resident group Save Picton Bay, which has been averse to the Picton Terminals’ practices.
“It gives the group a leg to stand on, which is fine. They won’t look at the emergency efforts, and they won’t look at how low the risk was,” Doornekamp said.
Indeed, the incident has spurred Picton councillor Lenny Epstein into action.
He wrote to his constituents via a Facebook post, withdrawing his previous support for the Terminals.
“There are multiple jurisdictions, divergent legal opinions, and…we have to go about governing the municipality in a way that reflects on these and the complexities of many issues, including [the Picton Terminals],” wrote Epstein. “As far as the original motion to support the grant application, that occurred before the MOECC orders, before the withdrawal of the zoning application by Picton Terminals.”
Epstein has prepared a motion to withdraw formal support for Picton Terminals and to seek a legal opinion about the best way to protect both water and land usage in the County.
The County’s communications coordinator, Lisa McLennan, says the County’s role is to protect drinking water from potential contamination.
“The Picton-Bloomfield water system has a shallow intake, and contaminated raw water at the intake has been identified as a potential hazard in the County’s Emergency Management Plan,” says McLennan. “We have an operational contingency plan in place to respond in the event there is a hazardous discharge that could threaten the raw water quality.”
The County has managed fuel spills from recreational watercraft in the past. McLennan says that while those could be different in scale, the emergency plan can manage a spill of any size and a cleanup time of any length.
“The reservoirs are able to sustain Picton and Bloomfield for more than sufficient time to bring in supplementary water sources if necessary,” says McLennan.
She adds that the policy in place is good enough, and doesn’t need to be improved to address concerns.
“Planning staff were instrumental in working with the Quinte Conservation Authority to get Source Water Protection zone data and in establishing policies to assist in assessing risk to the intake. Those policies have been established, so there is no further role for Planning at this time.”