Tobago oil spill remains unresolved, continues to threaten Caribbean

A massive oil spill off the coast of Tobago has now been termed as a national emergency by the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Keith Rowley. The risks are not limited to the twin island nation, as other nations in the vicinity continue to worry about the effects this disaster would have on their waters and people if it can not be contained.

Tobago oil spill remains unresolved, continues to threaten the Caribbean. Picture Credits: News Source Guyana
Tobago oil spill remains unresolved, continues to threaten the Caribbean. Picture Credits: News Source Guyana

A massive oil spill off the coast of Tobago has now been termed as a national emergency by the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Keith Rowley. The risks are not limited to the twin island nation, as other nations in the vicinity continue to worry about the effects this disaster would have on their waters and people if it can not be contained.

Tobago’s South-West coast has already been affected severely as many beaches have been coated with oil due to the spill. Questions have also been raised about the origins and owner of the vessel and how it ended up in the predicament that it is in currently.

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According to the authorities who are attempting to get the situation under control, it is difficult to accurately judge how much oil has been spilled already and how much still remains in the overturned vessel. This in itself is a matter of concern as efforts to mitigate the effects of the spill continue.

Prime Minister Rowley spoke about the matter at a press conference earlier, stating the following, “An unknown vessel has apparently drifted upside down into Tobago. That vessel, we don’t know who it belongs to. We have no idea where it came from and we also don’t know all that it contains.”

“What we do know is that it appears to be broken and is leaking some kind of hydrocarbon that is fouling the water and the coastline. That vessel could have come to us from any kind of operation, especially if the operation is illicit.”

Since divers have not been able to plug the leak despite their best efforts, they are now looking for the appropriate manner in which the remaining oil can be removed from the vessel safely.

Prime Minister Rowley said that the process of cleaning up the oil spilled will be an expensive proposition, “This is a national emergency and therefore it will have to be funded as an extraordinary expense … You have to find the money and prioritise. So, this is priority and we have to respond. Some not-so-insignificant costs are being incurred just to respond to this incident.”

Having said that, this process can only be initiated once the leak is dealt with, a thought which Prime Minister Rowley echoed himself, “Cleaning and restoration can only seriously begin after we have brought the situation under control. Right now, the situation is not under control. But it appears to be under sufficient control that we think we can manage.”

The Government of Trinidad and Tobago confirmed on Friday, after a series of tests, that the product leaking from the vessel is in fact a version of fuel oil.

As of now, the main concern, for Trinidad and Tobago, as well as other nations in the vicinity is that as long as the leak isn’t fixed, the oil from the vessel continues to work its way into the Caribbean Sea, threatening the region in the process.

The Energy Ministry of Trinidad issued a statement on the matter, “Analyses of the hydrocarbon discharge collected in Tobago indicates that the samples are characteristic of a refined oil.”

The Ministry has categorized the material specifically as ‘intermediate fuel oil’, which is often used as a bunker fuel to power combustion engines.

The head of Tobago’s Emergency Department, Allan Stewart, came out with some positive news when he said that the rate at which the fuel is leaking has slowed down.

Having said that, the spill has already had an adverse effect on Trinidad and Tobago’s beaches and has now entered the waters near Grenada as well.

The vessel has now been leaking for three weeks and has affected Trinidad and Tobago’s fishing and tourism industries severely.

Allan Stewart issued the following statement, “We are working hard to ensure the hydrocarbons do not get to the more sensitive southwest part of the island, where there are the popular tourist beaches.”

Tobago has been making use of skimmers and other such pieces of equipment to collect the fuel while containment booms are being used to try and hold the spill. The process is a painstaking one, especially since the vessel is said to have been carrying up to 35,000 barrels of fuel.

The official consensus is that the ship set sail from Panama and was headed to Guyana. Having said that, when monitoring service TankerTrackers.com and investigative news outlet Bellingcat reviewed satellite images, it was revealed that the vessel was near the shores of Venezuela, just days before the spill occurred.

“Imagery discovered by Bellingcat shows that the barge began leaking oil as early as February 3, immediately after leaving (Venezuela’s) Pozuelos Bay, and that it appears to have capsized by the morning of February 6.”

Even though this information has been made public, Venezuela continues to deny that the vessels came to the position it is in now from Venezuela’s shores. This has led to immense intrigue with regard to the ground reality of how the vessel began leaking oil and ended up capsized so close to Tobago.