DESCRIBING the oil spill in Tobago as “a national emergency,” the Prime Minister says the government will spare no expense to help rehabilitate the island, which is heavily dependent on tourism.
He made the statement on February 11 during a joint news conference with THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine at the Office of the Prime Minister – Central Administrative Services-Tobago, Orange Hill Road, Scarborough.
Dr Rowley, Augustine, Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan, Minister of Energy and Energy Industries Stuart Young and Tobago Emergency Management Agency director Allan Stewart had earlier toured several coastal regions in the western part of the island to get a first-hand account of the damage caused by the oil spill.
Several technical officials from various ministries, companies and agencies accompanied the ministerial team.
The spill originated from a mystery vessel – Gulfstream – that was found overturned in the sea some 200 metres off the coast of the Cove Eco Industrial Park around 7.20 am on February 7.
Rowley said nobody could have predicted that an oil spill would have permeated the waters of Tobago and, as such, an occurrence of this nature would not have been budgeted for the THA.
“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,” he said.
But Rowley stopped short of giving a potential cost to the rehabilitation effort.
He said the full scope and scale of what is required is still being determined and giving an estimate would be premature at this stage.
But he added, “The central government will have to provide the THA with whatever support the THA needs.”
Rowley said the ministries of works and energy, Heritage Petroleum and the THA, also have their individual budgets.
“So these are extraordinary expenses. But the budgeting process in the Ministry of Finance will take care of it.”
But he noted, “What should be clear to you is that some not so insignificant costs are being incurred just to respond to this incident that we didn’t plan for and that we didn’t expect. But it has happened and we are required to deal with it.”
Saying he was not surprised by the devastation he witnessed, Rowley said oil spills are usually “messy, stressful and expensive.”
But the PM noted he was very impressed by the initiatives that have been implemented so far to contain the spill and clean the shorelines of the affected beaches.
He said, “From mobilising the contingency plan, I would say that everything that needs to be done has been to this point done and is being done and will be done to ameliorate and minimise and eventually eliminate the threat that this poses to us.”
Although a tier-three response to the disaster (international support) has not been triggered, Rowley said several countries, with extensive experience in treating with oil spills, have already offered assistance.
“I can tell you as a country, Trinidad and Tobago has been offered significant help from friendly nations who are involved in this.”
He said the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and National Security are engaged in these discussions.
“But in the meantime we will be making full use of our capacity in house with the companies that work….So we are doing what is required to be done. We can’t undo what has been done.”
Regarding the operational aspect of the clean-up, Rowley said while cleaning the beaches is good, “if stuff is being poured out on a continuous basis into the water then it’s just spinning top in mud.”
He added, “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 can acknowledge if it doesn’t worsen, it should get better.
“I am anticipating an improved condition but because the vessel is precipitously located it can change its position based on the tide.”
Rowley said they are waiting on the results of the sample to determine the content of the cargo.
“I presume that sometime in the not-too-distant future, we may determine what other cargo and quantum might be on board.”
So far, he said, the authorities have not been able to determine if the oil-like substance leaking from the vessel is bunker fuel, fuel for preparation of the vessel or raw crude.
“These are answers we don’t have at this point in time. But as the days pass and the additional work is done, we should be able to answer those questions as we go forward.”
In the meantime, Rowley said the identity of the vessel remains a mystery.
“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.”
Rowley said the authorities also could not say if the vessel is a freighter, tanker or barge.
“Only the keel of the vessel is visible and its identifying characteristics are in the water which we can’t penetrate at the moment. But we are doing all that is possible to answer these questions.”
For now, he said, attempts are being made to prevent the oil from flowing into waters in other parts of the island.
“We are in the containment phase now and this phase will remain as long as the vessel is there and is entrapped with contents that could foul our environment.”
They will then have to empty the vessel.
“One thing we cannot do is to leave the vessel there with content that could just keep spilling into the water. If we do that, we then would be at the mercy of the weather because fortunately, the weather is good right now.
“If the weather changes significantly with high tides the behaviour of what is being spilled from the vessel could change.
“We have to thank God for small mercies because where it is now allows us to contain it better than anywhere else.”