Oil Leaked from shipwreck near Newfoundland

By Kim Smiley

On March 31, 2013, oil was reported in Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland.  Officials traced the source of the oil back to a ship, the Manolis L, that sank in 1985 after running aground.  The Manolis L is estimated to have contained up to 462 tons of fuel and 60 tons of diesel when it sank and much of that oil is believed to still be contained within the vessel.  Officials are working to ensure the oil remains contained, but residents of nearby communities who rely on tourism and fishing are concerned about the potential for more oil to be released into the environment.

A Cause Map, a visual format for performing root cause analysis, can be built to better understand this issue.  There are three steps in the Cause Mapping process. The first step is to fill out an Outline with the basic background information along with listing how the problem impacts the goals.  There is also space on the Outline to note the frequency of the issue.  For this example, 2013 was the first time oil was reported to be leaking from this particular sunken ship, but there have been 700 at-risk sunken vessels identified in Canadian waters alone.  It’s worth noting this fact because the amount of resources a group is willing to use to address a problem may well depend on how often it is expected to occur.  One leaking sunken ship is a different problem than potentially having hundreds that may require action.

The second step is to perform the analysis by building the Cause Map.  A Cause Map is built by asking “why” questions and laying out the answers to visually show the cause-and-effect relationships.  Once the causes have been identified, the final step is to develop and implement solutions to reduce the risk of similar problems occurring in the future.  Click on “Download PDF” to view an Outline and intermediate level Cause Map for this problem.

In this case, the environmental goal is clearly impacted because oil was released into the environment.  Why? Oil leaked out of a sunken ship because a ship had sunk that contained a large quantity of oil and there were cracks in the hull.  The hull of this particular ship is thin by modern standards (only a half-inch) and it has been sitting in sea water for the last 30 years.  A large storm hit the region right before oil was first reported and it is believed that the hull (already potentially weakened by corrosion) was damaged during the storm.  The Coast Guard identified two large cracks in the ship that were leaking oil during their investigation.

Once the causes of the issue have been identified, the final step is to implement solutions to reduce the risk of future problem.  This is where a lot of investigations get tricky.  It is often easier to identify the problem than to actually solve it. It can be difficult to determine what level of risk is acceptable and how many resources should be allotted to an issue.  The cracks in the hull of the Manolis L have been patched using weighted neoprene sealants and a cofferdam has been installed to catch any oil that leaks out.  The vessel is being monitored by the Canadian Coast Guard via regular site visits and aerial surveillance flights. But the oil remains in the vessel so there is the potential that it could be released into the environment.

Many local residents are fighting for the oil to be removed from the sunken ship, rather than just contained, to further reduce the risk of oil being released into the environment. But removing oil from a sunken ship is very expensive.  In 2013, it cost the Canadian Coast Guard about $50 million to remove oil from a sunken ship off the coast of British Columbia. So far, officials feel that the measures in place are adequate and that the risk doesn’t justify the cost of removing the oil from the vessel. If they are right, the oil will stay safely contained at a fraction of the cost of removing it, but if they are wrong there could be lasting damage to local communities and wildlife.

In situations like this, there are no easy answers.  Anybody who works to reduce risk faces similar tradeoffs and generally the best you can do is to understand a problem as thoroughly as possible to make an informed decision about the best use of resources.