Oil Fouls Tobago Beaches As Officials Try To Find Barge Owner

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An oil spill off the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago has fouled local beaches and is now drifting toward Grenada and Venezuela, officials said Thursday.

The spill, discovered on Feb. 7, was at first a mystery. Trinidad and Tobago’s Coast Guard saw oil in the water and traced it to a capsized barge with no crew or indication of where the vessel came from. The slick quickly covered nearby beaches along Tobago’s southwestern coastline as the ship continued to leak fuel.

Authorities later said the barge was being tugged from Panama to nearby Guyana before some sort of accident took place. It’s unclear who owns the vessel or if anyone was aboard or injured when it sank.

It’s also unclear how much oil has already leaked or how much more the barge contains.

Tobago’s chief secretary, Farley Augustine, told Reuters this week the slick had entered Grenada’s waters. Tobago has attempted to address the leak but has been unable to do so as the vessel is dangerously bobbing in the water.

Workers from the state-owned Heritage Petroleum Oil and Gas Co. clean up a spill that reached Rockly Bay beach in southwestern Tobago on Feb. 11.

Akash Boodan/Associated Press

“We are unable to plug the leak, and unless we have information on how much fuel is in the barge or what exactly it contains we cannot move forward, except containment and skimming,” Augustine said.

Authorities have installed a 40-foot perimeter around the site to control the oil slick, but cleanup crews have been working to clear beaches.

“We have a lot of questions, and now is the best time to have those questions answered,” Augustine later told reporters. “We need to know the quantity and the material you were transporting, 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.”

The Caribbean nation declared a national emergency earlier this week as the oil fouled coastal areas. Officials said cleanup costs were likely to be an “extraordinary expense” for Tobago but declared the effort a national priority.

View of the oil spill on Feb. 10 at Rockly Bay on Tobago.
View of the oil spill on Feb. 10 at Rockly Bay on Tobago.

CLEMENT WILLIAMS/AFP via Getty Images

Environmental groups said the spill underscored the need for President Joe Biden to permanently ban offshore drilling in U.S. waters, calling such exploration “reckless — period.”

“Oil and oceans don’t mix, and this disastrous oil spill from an overturned vessel off Trinidad and Tobago is the latest destructive example,” Alexcia Best, a campaign associate for Oceania, said in a statement. “As a Trinidad and Tobago national, I am personally hurt by this sudden crisis. The natural beauty of Tobago is a significant attraction for tourism, and this oil spill is a direct threat to that beauty.”

The Washington Post notes that Trinidad and Tobago is the largest oil producer in the Caribbean, and the industry accounts for more than a third of its gross domestic product.