Transport Canada doesn’t know how much ethyl benzene spilled into the St. Clair River

The Sichem Montreal, seen here on the water near Montreal, has been fined $7,800 for an ethyl benzene spill in the St. Clair River last August.

The Sichem Montreal, seen here on the water near Montreal, has been fined $7,800 for an ethyl benzene spill in the St. Clair River last August.

A Transport Canada report says there was no way for inspectors to know how much ethyl benzene spilled into the St. Clair River because no one knew how much of the cancer-causing chemical was loaded onto the marine tanker.

Last August, the Montreal-based ship The Sichem was unloading at Styrolutions in St. Clair Township when it spilled ethyl benzene into the water. Downstream monitors detected the chemical in the water in Courtright and water intakes at Walpole Island and Wallaceburg were closed as a precaution.

Transport Canada investigated and found the ship was responsible and fined the owner $7,800, outraging politicians.

Politicians, industry leaders and emergency officials disputed the ship had leaked only four or five gallons of the chemical, as Transport Canada found.

But the Transport Canada report released to local environmentalist Zak Nichols and generated by the investigators on the scene at the time says there was really had no way of estimating just how much ethyl benzene was spilled. And in the seven-page report makes no mention of the four to five gallons Transport Canada officials told the media had spilled when the fine was levied.

“It was quite remarkable,” the investigator wrote, “that neither the loading master nor the shore facility had records on cargo quantity delivered to the vessel. Therefore it was not possible to estimate the exact amount of chemical cargo discharged overboard.”

But Styrolution’s professional engineer was “certain” that the vessel was responsible for the discharge because none of the plants along the St. Clair River manufactured ethyl benzene.

The report also shows the crew of the Sichem were less than forthcoming with the information. Initially, investigators said the ship’s crew had done their own internal investigation “and found no indication that the chemical could have leaked from his vessel.”

Then, on Aug. 20, the inspector asked crew members of the Sichem for a survey report which was required. The crew told Transport Canada inspectors they didn’t have the information. When the ship was threatened with detention until the information was provided, the report was provided in minutes and “it was evident that the manual isolation valve on the overboard discharge line located on the main deck was in fact found defective.”

The ship had posted recommendations that the valve be fixed at the next port of call, Montreal ten days later.

The leak was hard for investigators to find because it was below the water line. “The video recordings and photographs of the valve opening and the hull condition around it showed paint peeled off exposing the bare metal of the hull/shell plate. Such signs further confirm that quite frequently corrosive chemicals discharged had been from the vessel,” the inspector wrote.

Nichols posted the report online and added that after waiting so long for the report on an incident which happened almost a year ago the findings were “left much to be desired.”

– Heather Wright