By Cathal Healy-Singh
Caribbean News Now contributor
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad -- At a press conference last week, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) revealed the contents of its most recent survey of the impact of the oil spill by Petrotrin, the Trinidad and Tobago state oil company, in the Gulf of Paria on December 17, 2013.
1. Latest survey shows catastrophic drop in Gulf catch rates.
This month FFOS concluded a survey of the impact of the December 17, 2013, oil spill by Petrotrin, the state oil company, on the catch of over 850 Trinidad fishers from over 25 fishing depots in the Gulf of Paria. The result shows an 80% overall average drop in catch rates. The range of the collapse was from a 95% high in Carli Bay to a low of 45% in San Fernando.
According to Petrotrin some 7,500 barrels of oil were unrecovered in the oil spill while 4,300 barrels were reclaimed. Some 31 fifty-five gallon drums of dispersant COREXIT9500 were used in two days.
2. Cabinet’s veil of secrecy must be lifted
The state continues to claim that the dispersants used (COREXIT and others) are not the cause of the fish kills. A few days after relevant state entities -- the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) and the Environmental Management Authority (EMA)) -- claimed that COREXIT/oil was not the cause of the fish kills, several bottle-nose dolphins washed ashore dead in the same area where residual COREXIT/oil was left by Petrotrin, north of La Brea, where mullet and several other species continue to wash up dead. (The bottle nose dolphins feed on mullet).
The EMA did not indicate what parameter was used to establish the presence of COREXIT/oil in the fish analysed. FFOS called on the government to lift the veil of secrecy on how much COREXIT was applied, how it was applied and where.
The public should have full access to all laboratory analysis. Yet this is being treated as classified information and we, the primary stake-holders are left to speculate. The Task Force set up to investigate the spill invited FFOS to share any data we had, saying that it would be held “confidential”. FFOS is a public interest NGO and all our data is public. We urge all information that the task force has to be also placed in the public domain as negative impacts are on public and environmental health, on national wellbeing and on the livelihoods of thousands.
3. Several species are dying, while the public is being lied to
Our members in La Brea have reported that the fish kill was not confined to mullet as was stated by the EMA and the IMA. Some 12 species of fish, several species of crab, pelicans, corbeaux, and dolphins were observed washing ashore dead in the immediate vicinity where the COREXIT was applied in La Brea, and nowhere else. It is abundantly obvious that almost all of the dead specie is restricted to the area where the residual submerged COREXIT was applied in its greatest concentration.
4. Compensation stopped while sick fish washed ashore
On April 8, the day after the IMA stated that the dead fish were not poisoned by COREXIT, Petrotrin stopped paying compensation to the three primarily affected communities in the contaminated "red zone". It meant that the fisher-folk were now free to catch shrimp and fish from the same area where the dead fish, dolphins, birds and crabs are washing up daily. Several shrimp trawlers known to be working the area bleached at least one catch with "caustic soda" to remove discolouration.
5. Species move in and out of the contaminated "red zone" area
Carite move from the north to the south in the Gulf of Paria. There is no certainty that Carite are not being affected by the contamination. Unlike mullet, which float when dead and wash ashore in high tide, dead Carite will sink to the ocean bottom and remain undetected.
In February 2014, FFOS filmed dolphins swimming below a film of oil off Gasparee island. In March and April, dolphins washed ashore dead. Three weeks ago, two leatherback turtles came ashore in Las Cuevas covered in slick oil. Two weeks ago dead turtles washed ashore in Maracas. It is technically reasonable to ask if there is a link between these occurrences and the spill.
6. Tidal movements remove the evidence
Tidal movements along the coastline are generally in a clockwise out to sea, in a west, south westerly direction in an alternating gyre. Sunken fish would be pulled out to sea again, undetected.
7. State employees instructed to bury evidence under cover of night
Local residents observed that during the early morning hours, in the “dead of night” as it were, (between 1am and 4am) when the fish kill was at its peak, eight weeks after the oil spill, persons with vehicles went onto the beach nightly and dug holes in the sand between high and low tide levels and buried large quantities of dead fish (estimated at three to four thousand lbs at a time). Locals and others concluded that this was being done to hide the scale of the impact of the oil spill. As a consequence, a proper scientific understanding of the extent of the oil spill was thwarted.
8. Petrotrin’s failed maintenance and unprepared emergency response has created culpability and liability
(a) When the oil spill first occurred in December 2013, Petrotrin’s first response was to disperse, rather than contain the spill. Unknown quantities of dispersants, including COREXIT9500, were applied to the spill both aerially from planes and by hand, from specially equipped pirogue vessels. For several weeks, chemicals were sprayed within 100 metres of the coastline, contrary to the product application directives and the standing Oil Spill Emergency Response Plan, which restricts spraying to 3 miles off-shore due to toxicity to biota - life.
(b) After repeated questioning by FFOS, Petrotrin finally admitted to having used the highly controversial COREXIT9500 for “two days only”. This is doubtful.
(c) Most instructively, Petrotrin’s first response to disperse rather than contain the spill was irreversibly catastrophic and in absolute violation of common sense and standard procedure. What they should have done was to (i) first isolate and contain the spill using floating booms (ii) use skimmers to concentrate the floating oil and a vacuum to remove and direct it to dedicated tankers and (iii) transport these tankers to an appropriate on-shore treatment facility.
(d) Recall that it was only after the spill was dispersed and washed ashore with the tide did Petrotrin attempt to isolate sensitive coastal areas like mangrove fronts and estuaries, from further contact with fugitive COREXIT/oil coming ashore. The result has endangered the health of residents, contaminated the fishery to an extent not clearly understood and jeopardised the livelihoods of fishers.
9. Residents are at greater risk as they are abandoned to fend for themselves
(a) Residents of Coffee Village La Brea were subject unnecessarily to extended exposure of fugitive gases from the landed oil spill – literally on their doorstep and yards. Scores of cases of respiratory problems were reported and some residents continue to be affected. Some of these have had to seek medical attention at their own expense. These gases are known to cause persistent respiratory problems. There were no adequate alternate facilities made available by Petrotrin where vulnerable villagers could have been reasonably accommodated. Reports of respiratory discomfort continue to date. Petrotrin ought to have, as part of the emergency response, facilitated the evacuation of the old and the young as well as infirmed villagers who had experienced prolonged exposure to toxic gases associated with hydrocarbon release.
(b) FFOS has called repeatedly for "no swimming” or “no barefooted signs" to be placed in contaminated areas. We observed children swimming in the water and playing on at least one beach where COREXIT/oil was still visibly present.
10. Petrotrin emergency response unfit for purpose
(a) Recall too that while the oil spill had not yet been contained, Petrotrin announced that the clean-up was complete. This was without adequate quality control, assurance and independent verification. Evidence of this was exposed by our members to the media at the mouth of the Aripero River and surrounding lagoon and mangrove areas as well as at Station and Coffee Beaches, where extensive areas of dispersed COREXIT/oil (with a soapy feel) was present, including a layer of oil just below the surface of the beach sand.
(b) Our members also dived and filmed handfuls of submerged COREXIT/oil in the near-shore areas at low tide. The appearance and consistency feel of this oil showed that it had been in contact with dispersants. Further, along the coastline, north of La Brea, large deposits of oil were observed at low tide. This COREXIT/oil remains fugitive today, laying in the shallows and leaching. It should be understood that the dispersant would have caused the oil to become frictionless, dispersed, suspended and eventually sink to the sea bed where, heavier than the seawater, would have become hidden from view. This we believe is the cause of the dead demersal fish, the bottom feeders.
11. Petrotrin, IMA, EMA, minister of energy, and cabinet have abandoned fishing communities
(a) The impact of the dispersed oil was recorded as far as Gasparee Island and in the Second Bocas ‘down-the-islands’ in the north of the Gulf of Paria. FFOS both filmed and collected samples of same. Neither the IMA nor the EMA showed any interest in speaking to FFOS about these finds although we notified their respective chairmen directly by phone. We also informed them by letter and films of our findings were aired on national television news.
(b) The state’s overall response strategy was to focus on ‘damage control’ rather that scientific analysis and transparency. It was more important to appear in control of the spill rather than engage with stakeholders who were attempting to discover the extent of its impact.
(c) The National Task Force is unrepresentative of the interests of fishers yet contains the National Trust, an organization whose mandate is to preserve architecture and monuments. The public remains convinced the task force is part of the state’s damage control strategy seeking to lay the matter to rest and “move on” as party loyalist have urged.
(d) FFOS calls on the president to intervene in this matter. We intend to continue to advocate against bad environmental practice in the oil/gas sector and for greater accountability for environmental destruction across the board.