Journo hubris: Crowing about an oil spill

As soon as I read NS Power’s detailed accounting of the August 2 oil spill at its Tuft’s Cove Generating Station, I knew Halifax Examiner editor Tim Bousquet would be crowing about his prediction the spill would turn out to be much larger than NSP let on.

Sure enough, today’s Morning File led off with a victory lap in which Bousquet proclaimed that, “as I predicted, [the spill] was much larger than originally reported.” The implication is that NS Power, through spokesperson David Rodenhiser,* deliberately misled the public.

I call B.S.

Three days after the incident, Rodenhiser told the CBC’s Susan Bradley that a cleanup consultant estimated less than 5,000 litres of oil had leaked into Bedford Basin. Oil in the harbour is far and away the most serious environmental consequence posed by such an incident. Rodenhiser offered no estimate of the total amount of oil that leaked—only that “less than 5,000 would have made it to the harbour.”

And how much oil actually did make it to the harbour? “Less than 5,000 litres.” Exactly what Rodenhiser said soon after the incident—the estimate Bousquet was so quick to deride.

As for the other details NSP released yesterday:

  • A containment trench captured 9,900 litres of oil, 95% of which has been recovered. What is a containment trench? It’s standard feature of industrial sites handling large amounts of petrochemicals. It’s designed to contain any spill and prevent it from reaching and harming the environment.
  • Another 9,400 litres entered the cooling water system of the Tuft’s Cove Unit 1 generator. This may or not be a big headache for NSP, but it is not a release into the environment.

Why didn’t NSP reveal the amount of oil that didn’t reach the environment when it released the much more important information that <5,000 litres did? Perhaps because it didn’t know. Determining how much leaked and where it went, and then validating those numbers, requires investigation, calculation, engineering analysis, and double checking, all of which take time to get right.

As is his wont, Bousquet went on to speculate this morning that the trench might not be a proper containment trench at all, but “simply a hole in the ground.” This dazzling investigative gem appears to be nothing more than uninformed naval gazing based on knee-jerk animus toward a big company.

Many questions arise from the spill: How did it happen? How likely is a recurrence? How quickly was it discovered and stopped? Why didn’t the trench contain the entire spill? Those are important matters the company, its regulators, and its environmental consultants will need to determine. Invidious reporting will not help get the answers.

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* Disclosure: Rodenhiser is a friend and former co-worker.

Photo credit: Sean Dewitt,