The oil has been seeping for about three years — sometimes in drops, sometimes leaving large slicks — fouling a scenic area in western Newfoundland once known for its scallop fishing.
Concerned residents near Shoal Point in Port au Port Bay have tried everything from news releases to photos and video of the bubbling leak from an abandoned exploration well, trying to spur a permanent fix.
"If there was a leak in St. John's harbour, the coast guard would probably jump on it within hours," said Bob Diamond of the Port au Port Bay Fishery Committee.
"We don't really know the impact it's having. But we know that oil and water and fish and tourism don't mix."
What is certain is that the scallop fishery, a once crucial economic driver in the area, has collapsed over the last three years, he said in an interview.
"We're speculating that it could be as the result of a number of factors: from oil polluting the environment to climate change to acidification of the waters.
"This is a man-made leak," Diamond said of the well, one of at least 12 abandoned exploration sites in the region that could date to the 1960s or as far back as the 1800s. Oversight and remediation must be stepped up, he added.
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Provincial Environment Minister Perry Trimper now says he's seeking expert advice to deal with the issue. He was not available for an interview Thursday, but confirmed in a statement that his department recently documented minimal seeping along with the smell of oil at Shoal Point.
Despite efforts last fall to cap the well pipes in an area known for fishing and tourism, Trimper said amounts seeping in May were "one drop at a time."
An official who visited again July 8 "did not see any free oil but did notice an oil odour," the minister said.
"The department intends to seek expertise to help determine what options are available to the government of Newfoundland and Labrador in order to manage the situation."
No timeline was offered.
A spokeswoman for Trimper also confirmed the province spent $263,000 last year on "a temporary attempt to control oil leakages."
An assessment last August by environmental consultant Amec Foster Wheeler — prior to the remediation work last fall — estimated about one litre an hour was seeping.
"Presently and based on the last two departmental inspections, the seepage rate was much less and we continue to look at available options to manage the situation and determine necessary actions," Chrysta Collins said in a statement.
Diamond said the fishery committee photographed significant sheens still escaping from one of the repaired pipes in May, while a second pipe that had been capped in November appeared to be gone.
"The second pipe apparently had been severed due to ice movement and/or tidal and weather conditions during the winter months," says a committee update released earlier this month.
There have been natural leaks from oil deposits in the region, but Diamond stressed this problem is a "man-made" issue.
The fishery committee is urging more research to examine the cause of decimated scallop stocks and pollution risks to the broader marine ecosystem. It wants more regulatory oversight and public consultation before future oil and gas exploration is approved.
And it wants Ottawa and the province to more clearly outline which agencies are responsible for cleaning up oil leaks and abandoned sites.
A long-term fix is way overdue, Diamond said.
"We'd like to see an inventory done of the sites, where they are, what kind of condition they're in and remedial action to fix any leaks that are occurring."