(TRINIDAD EXPRESS) – PRIME Minister Dr Keith Rowley has called the oil spill in Tobago a “national emergency” and yesterday expressed concern that the disaster was caused by an abandoned vessel that appeared to have drifted into local waters.
The PM was among Government officials to tour the disaster that has impacted much of Tobago’s south-western coast, stating afterwards that the spill was not under control but showed signs of containment amidst ongoing efforts.
At a news conference in Tobago following the tour, Rowley said all efforts to clean up, mitigate and prevent further disaster will continue to be ramped up in the coming days according to protocol, the National Disaster Contingency Plan and the weather.
Rowley, however, stated that the event could have been “much worse”, noting that experts have pointed out areas in which a spill would have caused disaster in places such as the Buccoo Reef and Nylon Pool.
Speaking from the Office of the Prime Minister at the Central Administrative Services Tobago (CAST), Orange Hill Road, Scarborough, Rowley also gave the assurance that all processes had been activated to pinpoint details about the vessel, including its origin.
He said “an unknown vessel had apparently drifted upside down” into Tobago’s waters, and “we don’t know who it belongs to”.
The PM said “we have no idea where it came from and all that it contains” but it was leaking “some sort of hydrocarbons”.
Stating later that no distress calls could be found on national security records, Rowley said the vessel could have been part of an “illicit” operation and because of the conditions where it was submerged, the physical nature of the vessel was also yet to be determined.
He said everything will be done to ameliorate and minimise threats but that the mitigation efforts would eventually have to get to a stage of the vessel being emptied.
While the prime minister could not give a cost associated with the operation, he said “significant” costs were being incurred.
The Central Government will support the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) and will also have to incur its own costs to assist, he said.
Rowley said the spill had occurred in a part of Tobago that was not heavily occupied and “we will have to move relatively quickly to the next level”.
International help offered
The prime minister said some “friendly” countries with experience in oil spills had offered “significant assistance” and that T&T may need help at the salvaging stage of the operation.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is currently talking to “people with more capacity than Trinidad and Tobago”, he said. T&T is, in the meantime, making full use of its in-house expertise, with multiple agencies on board and assistance coming in from bpTT as well, he stated.
Rowley aid the response so far had been in keeping with what was required and would continue as “we can’t pretend we don’t have a couple kilometres of fouled coastline”.
“Right now, the situation is not under control but appears under sufficient control that we can manage if it doesn’t worsen,” Rowley said.
Adding that it “should get better”, the PM noted that bigger booms were being added to prevent the sludge travelling further.
There were concerns that the vessel could also change position with the tides or develop new leaks, he said. In response to questions from the media, Rowley said a bigger Coast Guard presence was going to be established in Tobago.
He said “we do need to improve the fleet” and that an exercise was under way with Damen Shipyards to “refurbish and return”, with some 12 vessels currently in train.
The prime minister said there was no guarantee that the Coast Guard would have picked up the drifting vessel, especially in open water. He further stated that the vessel “could have passed us by”, had it not collided with land but a spill further west, in the Crown Point area, would have been more disastrous.
Minimal wildlife impact
Also speaking at the news conference was Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Chief Secretary Farley Augustine, who said there has been “minimal impact” on surrounding wildlife.
Augustine said since the THA was alerted to the spill on Wednesday morning, every necessary response was made and noted that personnel and equipment have been moving between the islands, since.
He said wildlife experts have joined the efforts and searches are continuous for any affected marine or terrestrial animals, while divers have daily attempted to search and identify the vessel.
Augustine said conditions around the vessel remained dangerous, however, and “we can’t get as close as we would like”.
The tour included Energy Minister Stuart Young and Works Minister Rohan Sinanan.
Sinanan said the ministry’s Maritime Division has been involved “since day one”, with divers being sent across.
The Works Minister also said that “priority” was being given to personnel and equipment that was being transported on the fast ferries and cargo sailings of the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (PATT).
Sinanan said, as of yesterday afternoon, more trucks had been loaded with equipment and had set to sail to Tobago, while the Ministry was working closely with the Tobago Emergency Management Authority (TEMA) and the THA.