NOTWITHSTANDING the positive slant offered by the Prime Minister on Sunday, the Tobago oil spill disaster caused by an overturned vessel has laid bare alarming gaps in the country’s coastal protection systems and in the contingency plans meant to deal with emergencies of this nature.
“It could easily have been worse,” Dr Rowley said as he convened a media briefing after touring affected areas. He said the prevailing weather conditions, coupled with the actual location of the wreck, meant the contamination was not more widespread. “We have to thank God for small mercies.”
That is little comfort. The images of shoreline blackened by oil, in an island whose defining characteristic as a tourism destination has been its pristine status, is a nightmare scenario.
If things could be worse, we would hate to see how.
The mysterious vessel, whose official registration information was not initially apparent even as it bore marking suggesting it was called Gulfstream, may well have slipped past radar surveillance. The lack of a regular Coast Guard patrol means precious time was also wasted before the alarm was raised early on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a full day passed before Tobago officials assessed the matter as one of national concern, triggering a tier 2 response.
By Sunday, the fifth day of the disaster, the State was yet to have full control of the situation, by the PM’s admission. Oil continued to seep to beaches and mangroves; needed equipment was still being shipped from Trinidad; 42-inch floating booms required to contain chemicals were still outstanding; the booms being used were not of the appropriate size; specialist labour continued to be sourced from Trinidad.
“The fact that these resources are not in Tobago is not unusual,” Dr Rowley insisted.
But the 2013 National Oil Spill Contingency Plan clearly needs to be reviewed to better cater for incidents in Tobago. The PM’s announcement of a Cabinet proposal to bolster Coast Guard resources there is acknowledgement enough of this.
The problems involving the failed interdiction of, and then, the response to this vessel have only been exacerbated by the mysterious circumstances. Not only is its provenance unknown, but there is uncertainty over the ship’s schematics and cargo. Even Dr Rowley admitted to being somewhat taken aback by its size. How it came to be abandoned, whether it was being tugged or operated, and for what purpose – all are yet to be established.
What’s clear is that with the possibility of a single storm upending the ongoing containment process, there is a narrow window of time to act.
But it would have been far better to have prevented the slick from washing ashore in the first place.