01/13/2014 01:02 EST | Updated 03/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Residents want permanent fix for leaking shipwreck off Newfoundland: minister

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - There are growing concerns as winter pounds the northeast edge of Newfoundland that small oil leaks from a vessel that sank in 1985 west of Fogo Island could get much worse.

Newfoundland and Labrador's natural resources minister is meeting this week with federal officials as residents worried about oil seeping from the Manolis L wreck 60 metres under Notre Dame Bay call for action.

"It's fearful," Derrick Dalley said in an interview Monday. "We understand the importance of the environment. The ecosystem out there is important to the economy of the region. We're a strong tourism area as well."

Dalley said he'll meet Wednesday with Canadian Coast Guard officials and Rob Moore, the regional minister in the federal government cabinet, to discuss what he said is Ottawa's duty to deal with the shipwreck.

The Liberian-flagged vessel sank after it ran aground in January 1985 on Blow Hard Rock near Change Islands. It went down loaded with more than 500 tonnes of fuel oil and diesel.

Reports of surface sheens prompted the coast guard last spring to install neoprene gaskets to plug hull cracks. In July, it lowered a device called a cofferdam to catch leaking oil.

Another sheen was spotted in October but the coast guard said at the time that amounts were relatively small and unrecoverable.

But reports from hunters in late December of more sheens, oiled seabirds and the smell of oil raised fresh alarms.

Dalley said any cleanup is Ottawa's responsibility and he'll express concerns from residents who want a long-term fix.

"We want to know there's no oil leaking ... that's going to in any way negatively impact the ecosystem in the region or the shoreline."

Coast guard spokesman Bob Grant said the cofferdam has shifted slightly and will be replaced as soon as weather permits with two larger, heavier devices.

A Transport Canada surveillance flight Saturday reported no sheens in the area and a coast guard vessel in the region since late December has not seen any evidence of more leaks, he added.

"Our immediate focus is to get these new cofferdams in place," Grant said when asked about possible long-term solutions, such as draining oil from the vessel.

The Manolis L sits on the ledge of a subsea mountain ridge. Its position adds to the complexity of an operation requiring a remotely operated underwater vehicle and larger vessels for support, Grant explained.

He urged the public to report any and all oil sightings.

Oiled birds should be reported to the Canadian Wildlife Service, Grant said.

Bill Montevecchi, a sea birds specialist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said more should be done to ease communication between fishermen and hunters — what he described as the first line of surveillance — and coast guard officials.

"They're trying but it's patchwork and clearly it's an accident waiting to happen," he said of federal efforts to stop more pollution from the vessel.

Montevecchi said reports of oiled birds and surface sheens cover at least a 20 kilometre area around the wreck site.

"That oil's not going anywhere except to the surface and the subsurface. It's going to get out of that boat."