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Ottawa risks disaster by not draining wrecked ship off Newfoundland: residents

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Residents near a shipwreck that's leaking oil off northeastern Newfoundland say Ottawa is risking disaster by not draining the vessel.

"It left a six-inch band of oily tar all around my wharf," said fisherman Larry Hurley, deputy mayor of Change Islands, of the seeping vessel now sitting 60 metres under Notre Dame Bay near his home.

That was in late December when he was horrified to see "the sludgiest, stinkiest" slick had drifted into his fishing harbour.

It followed earlier sightings of small oil slicks last spring and fall, and several reports of oiled eider ducks and other sea birds.

Canadian Coast Guard officials said last year they were looking into a permanent solution for oil escaping from the cracked hull of the Manolis L. The Liberian-flagged vessel sank when it ran aground on Blow Hard Rock near Change Islands in January 1985 with more than 500 tonnes of fuel oil and diesel on board.

But Mike Voigt, Atlantic region manager for coast guard programs, now says unless the leaks get worse, neoprene seals and a new cofferdam installed last month to catch oil are the only planned fix.

The streamlined cofferdam lowered by divers in January replaced an earlier version installed in July. It later shifted as more oil escaped.

Worried residents have formed a citizens' group along with a Facebook campaign calling on Ottawa to drain the wreck.

But Voigt said there's no plan for further measures.

"The coast guard will continue to monitor and manage the site, which we've been doing with the seal and the cofferdam," he said. "We are planning on going back in the spring when the ice goes to pump out the cofferdam. And that is working. That is the long-term solution.

"I can assure people that there's no oil leaking from it now and the coast guard is not going to abandon it."

Hurley said those words ring hollow after the first cofferdam failed.

"They can't even really monitor that now," he said of the ice-covered wreck site. "Once the ice breaks up we could be flooded with oil."

Arthur Elliott, former president of the local chamber of commerce in nearby Lewisporte, said Ottawa must do more.

"There is a very real possibility that the ship will break apart due to heavy seas or simply because of where it's resting" on the ledge of a subsea mountain ridge, he said.

"And if that happens, it will cause catastrophic damage to the shoreline, the wildlife, the bird life."

Newfoundland Liberal MP Scott Simms, whose riding includes the affected area, said the federal government's approach has conspicuously shifted.

He said former environment minister Peter Kent handled his questions on the file and told him last spring about consultations with several companies toward a long-term solution.

Simms said when he raised the matter again last fall, he was told that the Fisheries Department was now handling it.

"I think what has happened here is that the government now wants to wash its hands of this," he said. "And that's shameful because there is oil leaking out of this boat. It is a potential major disaster. I think they don't want to spend the money to do this and they just want this issue to go away."

Environment Canada spokesman Danny Kingsberry sent an emailed response to a request for comment from Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq. She took over the portfolio in July.

Kingsberry said the department is offering technical support such as "assessing potential impacts on birds, laboratory analysis of samples and shoreline clean-up techniques."

He did not respond to questions, however, about whether the federal government has changed direction on a long-term solution.

Voigt said he could not speak to that, except to say the coast guard got advice and ideas from unnamed consultants — including on reliance on the seals and cofferdam.

"We did not receive any proposals, and we are not pursuing them."

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