Mystery shipwreck causes disastrous oil spill off Trinidad

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Workers from the Heritage Petroleum Oil and Gas Company clean up an oil spill that reached Rocky Bay beach, in Scarborough, southwestern Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago, Sunday, Feb. 11. (AP)

TRINIDAN AND TOBAGO, Feb 13: Trinidad and Tobago’s pristine coastline faces a dire environmental crisis following an extensive oil spill triggered by an overturned vessel, marking what Prime Minister Keith Rowley termed a “national emergency” on Sunday.

The catastrophe unfolded on February 7 off the southern shores of Tobago Island, as confirmed by the country’s Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM). Approximately 15 kilometers (9 miles) of coastline now lie blanketed in blackened sludge, stated the agency in a release issued Saturday.

Images from the scene depict recovery workers navigating through thick layers of oil, with vast stretches of the beach obscured by the spillage. In response, multiple government agencies, alongside over 1,000 volunteers, have mobilized efforts to contain the environmental fallout.

Addressing the media in a press conference on Sunday, Prime Minister Rowley expressed grave concern, remarking that “the situation is not under control.” He added that the vessel’s origins remain elusive, emphasizing the gravity of the situation and the necessity for extraordinary financial allocations to tackle the crisis effectively.

Efforts to mitigate the spill’s spread have involved the installation of booms – floating barriers – to contain the oil slick, as outlined by Farley Augustine, Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly. Despite dispatching divers to seal the leak, authorities have encountered significant challenges in halting the discharge.

“We’re faced with the daunting task of extracting every last bit of oil from the vessel, albeit hindered by our limited knowledge of its internal structure,” Augustine informed reporters.

The absence of clear identification regarding the vessel’s type – whether a freighter, tanker, or barge – further complicates the response efforts. Prime Minister Rowley underscored this uncertainty, stating, “We’re unable to discern the vessel’s full configuration, given that only its keel is visible. Nonetheless, it’s evident that the vessel sustained significant damage, resulting in the leakage of hydrocarbons into the surrounding waters.”

Residents near Lambeau have raised alarms over the persistent odor emanating from the spill, expressing concerns about potential health repercussions, as reported by local media outlets. In response, Augustine advised individuals with respiratory ailments to utilize masks and consider relocating temporarily to minimize exposure.

The timing of the incident, coinciding with the Carnival season, exacerbates the economic ramifications, given the pivotal role of tourism in Tobago’s economy. Prime Minister Rowley underscored the imperative of containing the spill to safeguard the region’s tourism assets, acknowledging the profound impact on the local economy.

As the authorities grapple with the fallout of the oil spill, concerted efforts continue to mitigate the environmental and economic repercussions, with the focus squarely on containment, cleanup, and restoration of the affected areas.

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