Tobago oil spill mystery deepens as tug boat vanishes

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

A man takes a picture of a mystery boat which was found overturned near Cove on February 7. The National Security Ministry says another vessel, a tug boat, was involved in the incident. – FILE PHOTO

THE MYSTERY surrounding the oil spill in Tobago deepened on February 14 when it was revealed that the Gulfstream, which was found overturned in the sea 200 metres off the coast of the Cove Industrial Park on February 7, was one of two vessels involved in the incident.

But the whereabouts of the other vessel – a tugboat identified as Solo Creed – remains unknown.

In a release, the Ministry of National Security said video footage and other information obtained by the TT Coast Guard confirmed that the two vessels were a tugboat and a barge.

It added the Coast Guard is collaborating with other local and regional agencies, including Caricom Impacs, the Guyana Coast Guard, the Maritime Services Division and IR Consilium, through a consultant, to identify the vessels and their owners.

The ministry said investigations so far have revealed that the vessels appear to have been bound for Guyana.

However, the Guyanese authorities have confirmed that “neither vessel arrived as anticipated.”

The Coast Guard, the release said, also confirmed that the barge was being towed by the Solo Creed from Panama to Guyana. Satellite imagery shows the Solo Creed towing an object on February 4, it added.

The ministry said the National Coastal Surveillance Radar Centre (NCSRC) used this information to track the tug in TT waters, towing an object. But the NCSRC eventually lost radar contact with both vessels.

The Coast Guard said it is examining video footage supplied by its Guyana counterparts of the barge, as it appeared to be sinking. The Coast Guard also confirmed that neither the tug nor the barge had entered Guyana waters.

The ministry said as part of the investigation, Caricom IMPACS contacted the authorities in Panama and Aruba for photographs of the tugboat and the barge.

It said the Dutch authorities in Aruba provided images of the tug towing the barge and these images were used to confirm the identity of both vessels.

The ministry quoted line minister Fitzgerald Hinds as saying he appreciated the support provided by both agencies.

“We have been working very closely with the Guyana Coast Guard on this critical matter and we appreciate their full-scale support. Similarly, I am appreciative of Caricom Impacs and the work and support of our international partners in this matter.

“As minister, I give the assurance that the Coast Guard will continue to work with other local and regional authorities in this investigation and we look forward to a swift and successful resolution to all our benefit.”

Chief Secretary: Pay for this mess

But speaking at a news conference hours after the ministry’s release, THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine said the statement raises more questions than answers.

He also demanded that those responsible for the oil spill in Tobago “come clean.

PAY FOR THIS MESS: Chief Secretary Farley Augustine is calling on the owners of a barge which overturned and has been leaking oil in Tobago’s waters to come forward and pay for the damage caused and the cost to clean up. –

“This situation should not result in a paradise lost, certainly not for Tobago. But we need those responsible to come clean and we need those responsible to know that they have to pay for this mess, that they are culpable as part of this mess,” he told reporters at the Scarborough lay-by.

Augustine said on February 13, someone sent him information about the vessel on WhatsApp.

“We got that report last week Wednesday at 7.20 am and more than likely, that vessel was lost before that time.

“You really took that long to come forward and take ownership of this? This is your vessel and you have not come forward and arrived to Tobago as yet to sit with the people who have been part of this clean-up.”

Augustine said the press release also does not indicate what the vessels were carrying and the quantities.

“The WhatsApp message I got last night says that they were carrying 5,000 metric tonnes of fuel. Is that true?

“The WhatsApp I got also said the owner of this vessel is one of those trying to purchase the refinery down in Point Fortin. Is that true?”

“We have a lot of questions. So now is the best time to have those questions answered because, for starters, we need to know the quantity of material so we know what we have been dealing with, what we have been walking in, what we have been swimming in, what we have been trying to clean-up from our shores. I want to know how much they would pay for this.”

Augustine said the Gulfstream continues to leak some form of hydrocarbon off Canoe Bay.

“So we really don’t know what was the carrying capacity of this vessel. It may very well mean that this vessel carries different bunkering chambers that may not have been compromised as yet.

“What if there are other areas left to be compromised that can cause an even bigger leak? We need to know that information so that we can work on extracting as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, in a media release on Wednesday, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea said it wanted to know who will bear the clean-up costs.

“We have nine laws and four policies that are supposed to be functioning to ensure that our land and marine areas are protected against oil pollution! Our Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 1990) is clear when it dictates a strict liability standard for damage from oil spills and establishes criminal sanctions including mandatory incarceration for the irresponsible and negligent culprits (TT$10,000 and 12 months imprisonment).”

Fishermen and Friends said it is wary of the government possibly downplaying the environmental impact of the oil spill and called for an independent assessment of the efficacy of the booms and other clean-up measures.

“We appeal for honesty,” it said.