35,000 barrels of oil pollute Tobago environment

What really happened?

By Mike Jarrett

Tuesday, February 6, 2024 was as normal as it gets in the twin island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. The people of Tobago turned in for the night as usual, but they woke up to weeks of disruption. Helplessly, they watched a spreading slick of black oil riding the waves to threaten their pristine Caribbean paradise.

The morning newscast on Wednesday, February 7 reported that a vessel with a cargo of hydrocarbon had struck a reef and was damaged. Trinidad and Tobago immediately went into Tier 2 disaster mode, i.e., from a local threat to a situation requiring a national response. It was a long day but, even as night descended, there were more questions than answers.

Why were there no distress signals to alert local authorities? Why was there no one on board the vessel? Who were the owners and operators of this vessel? Where did it come from and where was it going? What and how much cargo was it carrying? What exactly was the hydrocarbon that had polluted Tobago’s pristine beaches? It would be weeks before the people of the republic got some answers. immediately went into Tier 2 disaster mode, i.e., from a local threat to a situation requiring a national response. It was a long day but, even as night descended, there were more questions than answers.

Two days before the mishap, satellite imagery recorded a tug in Trinidad and Tobago waters towing what was then described as “an object”. That object was a barge approximately 100 metres long carrying the equivalent of 35,000 barrels of fuel oil.

As investigations continued, CARICOM’s Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) contacted the authorities in Panama and Aruba seeking photographs of the tug and the barge. Authorities in Aruba provided images of the tug towing the barge. These images were used to confirm the identity of both vessels.

The Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard confirmed that an object was being towed by a tug registered as Solo Creed, from Panama to Guyana. Guyanese authorities indicated that neither of these vessels had arrived there. Trinidad’s National Coastal Surveillance Radar Centre used this information to track the tug in Trinidad and Tobago waters.

Farley Augustine, Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly described the stress and anxieties of that first day of what was already threatening to be Trinidad and Tobago’s biggest environmental catastrophe of the century. Augustine said the first report was received on February 7 after 7.20 a.m. by the Tobago House of Assembly through its Emergency Operations Centre and the Coast Guard was immediately notified. Within 24 hours the threat was elevated to Tier 2 level.

When first detected, the slick was just 6 km off the coast of Studley Park. It drifted 15 km westward, and there was a 12 km drift into the Port of Scarborough. As Augustine explained, a response strategy was immediately developed prioritising major tasks. Subheads in the strategy included:

  • Boom installation: Immediately necessary for containment.
  • Deployment of additional booms: This was critical for damage control and to ensure protection of other areas regarded as most likely to be affected.
  • Beach clean-up: This required equipment not in Tobago. Clean-up therefore started manually with the use of backhoes and trucks until special tankers arrived. The Division of Health constructed special cells at the Studley Park dump site to hold the toxic substance skimmed from the water and off the beaches. This was urgent in order to prevent seepage into Tobago’s aqueducts and surrounding areas.
  • Identifying the vessel by name: Days into the crisis there was no clue as to the ownership of the vessel.
  • Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation: Early estimates suggested that the impact on wildlife was minimal.
  • Diver logistics: Diving at the site of the disabled vessel was difficult and dangerous. Visibility was limited. The barge, not fixed on the reef, was unstable.
  • Ground logistics: A comprehensive response that mobilises an expansive range of government ministries and departments; local and national agencies and organizations; personnel from various sectors and departments; and an army of including medics and volunteers from various sub-sectors was a mammoth task.

In subsequent discussions with news media representatives, Prime Minister Keith Rowley acknowledged concerns that the 24-inch oil booms being used were inadequate. He said immediate efforts would be made to acquire 40-inch and 50-inch booms and the vessels to deploy them.

He acknowledged the concerns of local divers that the leak cannot be plugged so a method had to be found to carefully extract all the oil from the vessel. But, without schematic diagrams it is not known whether there are other compartments that contain oil or other toxic substances, he said.

Work to protect the beautiful yet fragile ecology of Tobago continued feverishly. Meanwhile, the motion of the sea carried the oil to other Caribbean territories, particularly in the Dutch Caribbean and Grenada. On May 7, one month after the incident, the Trinidad and Tobago government announced that the leak from the barge was arrested. The leak may have stopped but the clean-up was still in its early stages. Damage to shoreline habitats and the marine environment from 35,000 barrels of oil ditched into Tobago’s waters would require more than four weeks for recovery.

uncertainties about details and information necessary to deal with this crisis situation

Prime Minister Keith Rowley met with local news media representatives and stakeholders within a week of the event. Up to then, four or five days into this disaster, the Trinidad and Tobago government was clearly uncertain about much of the important details and information necessary to effectively deal with this situation.

Saying he would be careful to “avoid speculation”, the Prime Minister made the following points and observations:

  • An unknown vessel drifted, upside down, into Tobago’s zone waters.
  • We have no idea to whom it belongs, where it came from, or all that it contains.
  • It is broken, having hit a reef, and is leaking some kind of hydrocarbon that is fouling the water and the coastline.
  • Because of the state of the water, only the keel of the vessel was visible, local authorities were unable to determine the type of vessel… whether it was a freighter, a tanker, or a barge.
  • Unable to determine what other cargo may be on board and the quantum of such. Don’t know if it’s bunker, fuel for propulsion of the vessel, or raw crude.
  • Cannot leave the vessel in place without emptying it… it could continue to spew toxic material into the environment over time.
  • Good weather and flat seas supported initial responses, but rough seas could render the booms ineffective for containment of the oil on the surface.
  • Urgently need to move the vessel to a place and situation where it does not pose a threat.
  • Salvaging may require help from outside of the country.
  • The vessel was streaming a length of cable which suggests that it was being towed at some time prior to striking the reef in Tobago waters.
  • Concerns that the 24-inch oil booms on hand were inadequate as wave action was pushing the oil over the booms. Immediate efforts to acquire 40-inch and 50-inch booms and vessels to deploy them.
  • Local divers say the leak cannot be plugged so a method has to be determined to extract every bit of the oil from the vessel. But not having the schematics of the vessel it is not known whether there are other compartments that contain oil or some other toxic substance. So, moving the vessel, the salvaging and other such operations will have to wait until we can figure out the schematics of the vessel.


Financing Clean-up

In May, following his return from the UK, Trinidad and Tobago’s Minister of Energy, Stuart Young, was positive in his expectation that the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund wouldl cover the costs of a massive oil clean-up. Despite the fact that Trinidad and Tobago is no longer a member of the Fund since 2018, Young expressed confidence early in May that the country will get the needed financial support.
A contributing member of the Fund since 2001, the government stopped making contributions following the restructuring of Petrotrin. However, driven by tragedy
at home, Young went to the United Kingdom to deliver what was described as “a successful submission” to the Fund’s Executive Committee on April 29. The Fund’s
Executive Committee agreed that the organisation’s 1992 Civil Liability and Funds Conventions would apply to this incident and authorised the Director to make payments
of compensation. With oil clean-up costs estimated at US$20 million, plus local charges incurred by the Tobago House of Assembly and the Tobago Hotel Association, total costs by
some estimates were expected to be more than US$30 million.

The cost of clean-up may be measured in dollars or euros. In this regard the support of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund is needed. However, the ultimate damage to Tobago’s fragile environment may not be as easily quantified. []


First published: May 31, 2024

Mike Jarrett