Oil spill from capsized barge near Tobago soils beaches hundreds of miles away


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — An offshore oil spill that prompted Trinidad and Tobago to declare a national emergency earlier this month involves hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel, some of which has reached the shores of the Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire hundreds of miles away, authorities said. This is the first estimate of the size of the spill, and the first sign of how far the leaked oil has traveled.

A minimum of 420,000 gallons (1.6 million liters) of oil mixed with water have been vacuumed near Tobago where a barge capsized, officials announced Wednesday. However, they warned the number is likely larger since it does not include oil picked up with sand and sargassum.

“A substantial amount of this material found its way out of Tobago as well,” said Farley Augustine, chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly. “It’s hard to estimate precisely how much leaked out of the vessel.”

Augustine warned that “a spill of this size” would take up to eight months to be fully cleaned, with waste-management efforts taking more than a year and remediation efforts such as replanting mango trees and repopulating ecosystems taking up to three years.

“We are in this for the long haul,” he said at a press conference.

Officials have not provided a preliminary estimate of the damage the spill caused, noting the investigation is ongoing.

Augustine said the government has some leads but declined to share details: “We will have sufficient time to prosecute this matter, and we most definitely will.”

The oil spill was blamed on an overturned barge that had departed from Panama and was being tugged to nearby Guyana when it began to sink, according to a preliminary investigation. The owner of the barge has not been identified.

Allan Stewart, director of Tobago’s emergency management agency, said rugged terrain and cliffs in Lambeau and parts of Scarborough in the island’s southern region have complicated cleanup efforts.

He said the local government also needs more personal protective equipment as well as water and detergent to wash the one currently in use. In addition, officials need more frac tanks.

“We are running out of space in terms of containment,” Stewart said.

Meanwhile, government officials in Bonaire said the oil poses a “serious threat” to the island and its nature including its mangroves, fish and corals. The oil washed up in areas along the island’s east coast despite efforts to contain it, the government statement said Monday.

Bonaire is more than 500 miles (830 kilometers) east of Tobago, where the spill occurred.

Augustine said local and international experts working to contain and clean up the spill have not identified any leak from the barge in days, but the danger may not be over.

“It may very well have other compartments that…have not leaked as of yet,” he said, adding that crews are still probing the barge.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of Energy said Tuesday that crews completed an investigative hydrographic survey of the wreck to allow officials to create a map of the seabed and other data around the wreck, which foreign experts are helping to remove.

Crews are working to contain and collect the oil, officials said.

Environmental activists have questioned who will pay for the cleanup costs and demanded help for fishermen whose livelihood and equipment were affected.

Augustine said relief efforts will start Friday, with the government distributing vouchers to those affected so they can buy groceries.

“These individuals have had their industry impacted for over two weeks,” he said. “Certainly they have needs that must be met. They have families they must take care of.”

He said the government will announce additional relief efforts in upcoming days and will meet with Tobago’s fishing community to quantify their losses: “The fishing industry is significantly large on the island.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean at https://apnews.com/hub/latin-america



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