Trinidad and Tobago declares national emergency after ‘mystery’ oil spill

Oil spill Trinidad and Tobago Image handout via Office of the Chief Secretary - THA

Cleanup has begun in Trinidad and Tobago after a large oil spill near the twin-island nation caused by a mysterious capsized vessel.

Prime Minister Keith Rowley said in a news conference that “the situation is not under control.” The origins of the vessel have not yet been identified, he added. Authorities have confirmed the vessel is known as The Gulfstream and may have been carrying lumber and sand when it overturned off the coast of the Cove Eco-Industrial Estate.

“We do know it appears to be broken, having made contact here, and is leaking some kind of hydrocarbon that is fouling the water and the coastline,” stated Rowley.

“This is a national emergency, and therefore, it will have to be funded as an extraordinary expense,” he added. “We don’t know the full scope and scale of what is going to be required.”

The spill occurred on 7 February 2024, off the southern shores of Tobago Island, according to the country’s Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM).

No emergency calls were made after the vessel capsized, and it was seemingly abandoned by its crew shortly afterwards.

A statement issued by the ODPM on Saturday indicates that about 15 kilometres (9 miles) of the coastline “is now blackened.

“The spill is currently a level 2 incident, but the government may soon designate the accident as its first-ever level 3 disaster. This would mean the country has become overwhelmed by the scale of the operation and requires international assistance.

Authorities have installed booms to prevent the spill from spreading to other areas. Divers have been dispatched to try and plug the leak, but so far have not been successful.

The spill occurred just before Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival celebrations, a popular tourist attraction and an important source of income for the nation.

“The best part of Tobago’s economy is its tourism, so it is important that we be cognisant that we don’t expose the tourism product to this kind of thing, and because this has happened, we have to contain it,” prime minister Rowley said.

Some 1,000 volunteers have now joined government staff to clean up the spill.

Oil spills and marine pollution can have devastating impacts on coastal communities and ecosystems. In 2022, around 30,000 gallons of oil spilled into the waters off Exuma in the Bahamas from a ship delivering fuel. And, earlier this year, Spain declared an environmental emergency as millions of plastic pellets spilled from a cargo ship began to wash ashore.

Main image, handout photo courtesy of the Office of the Chief Secretary (THA) via Reuters.

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