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Mystery Oil Spill Turns Miles of Trinidad’s Beaches Black

Volunteers aid an oil-slicked seabird. Photo Courtesy of Papa Bois Conservation

PORT OF SPAIN, Dec 23 2013 (IPS) - Whether it is a case of sabotage or simply poor management practices by the state-owned PETROTRIN, as the union claims, a mysterious oil spill in south Trinidad is wreaking havoc on homes and wildlife in the area.

PETROTRIN claims it has no idea as to the source of the spills, and Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine, who toured La Brea and other affected areas on Sunday, said “the mystery remains where this oil is coming from.”

"Shut it down, if you don’t know where it is coming from." -- Gary Aboud

The Environmental Management Authority also said it had been unable to ascertain the source and that its immediate concern was the protection of life and the environment.

Gary Aboud, president of Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, told IPS that the only solution was to shut down all oil production in the area.

“As we speak, more and more oil is being pumped into the sea. Why doesn’t the minister order the shutdown of all oil being transported in the Gulf of Paria? Shut it down, if you don’t know where it is coming from,” he said. “We find it totally unbelievable.”

According to the head of the La Brea Fisherfolk Association, Alvin La Borde, “[Local] fishermen cannot go out to work. They need to buy things for their families for Christmas. They would not be able to leave until this oil is cleared.

“The fishermen have also lost nets and ropes used to secure their boats,” he told IPS.

In a statement, the EMA said it “will continue to closely monitor clean-up efforts and ensure that environmental best practices are carried out.

“Once the source of the spillage is determined, the EMA will be assessing the situation from a legal and compliance perspective to ascertain whether there is any breach in environmental legislation.”

Fitzgerald Jeffrey, the member of Parliament for the La Brea region, which is known for having the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world, told IPS that he is hoping the evacuation is carried out “as quickly as possible”.

“There are young people and it is difficult for them to breathe…and as much as 24 families are directly affected. In addition, there are fishing vessels contaminated with oil. We are seeing crabs and dead fish along the beach.

“Yesterday I was down there and there is a very strong gas scent and people have been advised not to do any cooking in the area,” he added.

On Monday, the environmental group Papa Bois Conservation issued an urgent appeal for paper towels, dishwashing liquid and other supplies to aid birds that are covered in oil.

The Wildlife Orphanage and Rehabilitation Centre (WORC), which is also trying to rescue animals affected by the oil spill, reports “oil in the mangrove as well as a strong hydrocarbon smell”. The WORC also posted on its website a picture of an oil-slicked dead pelican at La Brea.

PETROTRIN, which has been in operation for 100 years, has acknowledged that there are installations across the country engaged in refinery activities and that some of its pipelines may still contain hydrocarbons that can be hazardous to health.

Ramnarine said the authorities were now seeking international assistance in dealing with the oil spill, even as the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) maintained that PETROTRIN should shoulder the blame for the environmental disaster.

“We do not concur with the company’s offering of the excuse that it is some kind of sabotage or otherwise,” OWTU president general Ancel Roget told a news conference on Sunday.

“We want to say there is a massive cover-up of the PETROTRIN management to shield their friends, the lease operators, who they invited to and in fact gave away some of the lucrative acreage of PETROTRIN assets, and therefore a cloud of silence and secrecy has shrouded the lease operators in the La Brea situation,” he said.

Roget has accused the company of knowingly reducing the level of security in the fields, allowing thieves to roam freely.

“The reduction and removal of morning tower shifts…these shifts provided as a monitoring effort and additional security effort so that if there are any oil spills throughout fields they were reported in real time.”

Roget said PETROTRIN had no emergency response contract to deal with the latest series of oil spills, saying “they violate their own investigation policy which states that investigations of that nature ought to take place within the first 24 hours.”

But Ramnarine said that unmanned platforms were part of the industry globally.

“We can’t put people on every single platform,” he said, adding “in the Gulf of Mexico, there are unmanned platforms.”

Over the weekend, PETROTRIN’s president Khalid Hassanali said one of the company’s lease operators, Trinity Oil and Gas, had discovered several valves open at its operations in Rancho Quemado, allowing oil to flow out of the tanks onto the lands.

“This is of concern because the other spills have been marine. It is extremely disturbing because…the valves were found opened which doesn’t normally happen. All these things happened together,” he said, saying that the company was now investigating whether the oil spills were acts of sabotage.

“To reach that conclusion one needs to go through a process of investigation. It’s early, we can’t reach that conclusion without being fair and without investigating fully,” he told a news conference.

The company issued a statement informing residents in nearby villages that oil had been sighted along the coastline near shore and on land and that they should avoid venturing in or near the sea.

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