THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine says there is a strong possibility Tobago may need international assistance to address the environmental fallout from an oil spill caused by a boat found overturned on Wednesday in the sea about 200 metres off the coast of the Cove Eco Industrial Park.
Thick oil blackened the shorelines of several coastal villages, including Petit Trou beach, Lambeau, Lowlands, near the Magdalena Beach & Golf Resort and along the Scarborough waterfront, Milford Road. There are reports the oil has seeped into waters as far east as Roxborough.
The situation has left fisherfolk and hotel operators very concerned, with the former worried about their catches and the latter worried about cruise ships not wanting to dock in Tobago's waters.
Addressing a news conference on Thursday at the Scarborough Lay-By, Augustine acknowledged that fishermen, beachgoers and the island’s tourism sector will be severely affected by the oil spill. He told reporters the situation was grim.
“We have at this point the threat level elevated at tier two but we anticipate that in the coming hours it may very well be elevated to tier three,” Augustine said.
“At tier two, it means we, from our end, are declaring this not just a disaster but one that requires national attention.
“Tier three level means, at that juncture, we will have to get requisite international partners to assist. That means we will have to go beyond the national scope, given some of the things we are seeing at the moment and can’t readily disclose right now.”
Augustine said the THA was working closely with the Ministry of Energy, the Environmental Management Authority (EMA), the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA), the Coast Guard, the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) and Kaizen Environmental Services (Trinidad) Ltd to try and resolve the situation.
The 330-foot-long boat, named Gulfstream, is believed to have been carrying lumber and sand, the Tobago Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) said in a release issued on February 8.
TEMA also said there were no visible signs of human life nor remains on the vessel. It said the EMA has collected samples of the oil for further testing to confirm its exact composition.
Augustine, who was accompanied by Secretary of Infrastructure, Quarries and Urban Development Trevor James and TEMA director Allan Stewart, said the clean-up began in earnest on February 8.
Close to 80 workers from the Cepep, Unemployment Relief Programme (URP), Civilian Conservation Corps and Community Emergency Response Team were deployed to assist with exercises at Petit Trou, Rockley Bay and other areas. Absorbent booms were also brought in to assist with containing and absorbing some of the oil spill across parts of the island.
Augustine said the clean-up could take several days.
“It will take some doing to clean up what we have here. We expect this clean-up activity to go into the weekend. We know this is supposed to be Carnival weekend but we will be working through the weekend and doing what is necessary to ensure that the clean-up happens.”
Augustine said the workers have removed a significant amount of sargassum.
“This is the one time we are grateful for sargassum because the sargassum weed is acting as a natural absorbent of the crude oil and so we are able to dispose of that sargassum.”
He added the sargassum is being stored in a sealed containment area at the dump in Studley Park to ensure that the toxic material does not seep into any other area to further destroy the environment.
“We are deliberate in ensuring that we clean as quickly as possible and that we minimise any further damage to the environment.
“The processes that we are using are really international best practice, because we have to ensure that we do not destroy the environment in an attempt to clean up the environment. We have to ensure that we are not doing anything that is inimical to our own interest and the interest of the industries that depend on the marine space as well.”
Augustine said the THA has not ruled out compensation for fishermen and others directly affected by the oil spill.
“The administration is not saying there will never be any compensation on this matter. All we are saying is that for now, the priority is clean up and containment. And in doing so, we will be able to properly assess the damage and the impacted parties and then we could have a discussion about compensation.”