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Salvage of oil barge risky

Ocean salvage experts from Canada, the United States and Europe are assembled at this Atlantic seaport for a delicate and controversial effort to raise an oil-laden barge from the depths of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where it sank 26 years ago.

The barge has been leaking its cargo of bunker oil as well as heating fluid laced with hazardous PCBs since it was swamped in a storm and settled 220 feet below the surface. Raising the vessel would remove the pollution source, but it also carries a risk that the barge could break up, resulting in a catastrophic spill.

Exactly how great a risk is a matter of contention. The government argues that lifting the barge is much safer _ and less costly _ than pumping the oil out of the vessel while it sits on the sea bottom or doing nothing while the wreck continues to deteriorate.

"It's not a no-risk situation, but we want to keep risks to a minimum," said Bill Dancer, who commands the operation from the bridge of a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker stationed above the wreck.

John Noble, a British expert who is here as an independent observer, brushes aside concerns of a leak. "I don't anticipate any spilling of oil," he said. "In salvage and wreck-removal terms, this is really a very simple and straightforward operation."

Such assurances have satisfied some environmentalists, but not all.

"There is going to be a major slick with this operation. There will be an uncontrollable release of oil and possibly of PCBs," activist Daniel Green predicted last week. Green's organization, the Montreal-based Society to Vanquish Pollution, unsuccessfully has fought a court battle to halt the recovery.

A large spill could cost Canada's east coast fishing and tourism industries nearly $300-million, the Coast Guard calculates, and would affect countless seabirds, fish and dolphins. The area also is near the feeding grounds of several whale species.

The confidence with which the government approaches the task is testament to the advances in diving, salvage and oil containment over the last decade. But for the last year, this operation has been plagued by bad weather, bad publicity and bad luck. So far, the only thing that has risen is the cost to Canadian taxpayers, which now stands at more than $22-million, three times the original estimate.

The current timetable calls for lifting the barge toward the end of this month. But to complete the operation, the salvage team needs at least 48 consecutive hours of calm seas, and this has been a blustery summer, said Coast Guard spokesman Dick Pepper.

The latest setback was Hurricane Bertha. While the deadly storm had lost most of its power by the time it reached Canada, it nonetheless forced the fleet of salvage ships into port and delayed the arrival of additional vessels from the United States. In addition to the icebreaker, the lift involves a dive ship, two crane vessels and a semi-submersible barge.

Divers working round-the-clock as weather permits have cleared debris, patched leaks and prepared the wreck for the web of slings and cables that will be wrapped around it for the lift. Perhaps the toughest job was digging a trench into the bedrock beneath the bow for one of those slings.