‘Tek sleep and mark death': Oil disaster in Tobago is a cautionary tale

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By Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie

This article was first published in the Jamaica Gleaner and is republished below with permission.

On February 7, an overturned vessel off the southern shores of Tobago caused a catastrophic spill with an oil-like substance, leading Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Keith Rowley to declare a national emergency.

Distressing photographs show thick black sludge in the island’s coastal waters, smothering vast expanses of beach and mangroves. Urgent calls for volunteers to aid in the extensive cleanup effort have been issued, as neighbouring countries brace themselves for potential oil slicks drifting beyond Tobago’s shores.

It is important to note that Trinidad and Tobago has a national oil spill contingency plan and over a hundred years of experience in the oil and gas industry.

Meanwhile, in Guyana, substantial reserves of oil and gas have been discovered beneath its coastal waters by an ExxonMobil-led consortium. Forecasts predict the country could produce 1.2 million barrels per day by 2027 or 2028. Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), however, indicate that in the event of a spill or well blowout, the repercussions could devastate large swathes of the Caribbean, stretching from Trinidad through the Lesser Antilles, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic.

This would devastate coastal ecosystems, infrastructure, tourism, fisheries, shipping, and other vital economic activities, placing many island nations in economic jeopardy.

ExxonMobil’s active wells in Guyana are deep wells, located in water depths of 1,500–1,900 metres within the Stabroek Block. Such wells carry heightened environmental risks, exemplified by the 2010 BP Macondo disaster, which unleashed nearly five million barrels of crude oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days.

The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) has written these concerns to Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who chairs Jamaica’s National Disaster Response Mechanism (NDRM). No response has been forthcoming to date.

In light of these risks, it is imperative that the public is informed about Jamaica’s National Oil Spill Plan, which was approved in 2014 and covers Jamaica’s offshore waters and the shoreline (Contiguous Zone and Economic Exclusive Zone).

The plan also refers to land-based oil spills, including any body of water that may migrate to or flow into coastal waters.

Key questions arise: Does Jamaica possess adequate equipment to mitigate the impacts of an oil spill? Has Jamaica coordinated its response plan with that of Guyana, considering the potential cross-border implications? When was the last training for key personnel who would be involved in the response?

The National Plan states that national simulation exercises and drills should be conducted on a regular basis (minimum once every two years) to test the plan. Given that the plan is 10 years old and the risks of an oil spill are now much greater, are there plans to revise it in accordance to evaluation of simulation exercises and drills (i.e. every two years) or in response to any incidents exceeding its scope?

The disaster in Tobago is a cautionary tale. Let us recognise these grave risks and take proactive measures to safeguard our environment and economy.

Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie is the CEO of Jamaica Environment Trust. “Tek sleep and mark death” is a Jamaican proverb for a red flag: Be aware and take note of warning signs that point you to something serious to come.

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