(FORBES) – A state of environmental emergency is being called for by fishermen in Trinidad and Tobago over a sinking oil tanker with 1.3 million barrels of oil.
If the oil spills, it would threaten the entire Southern Caribbean. At 264 meters in length and a capacity of 1.4 million barrels, the spill would be five times worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, which was the worst in history until the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon.
Officials have been criticized for allowing the situation to evolve for three months without taking sufficient action. The Nabarima is a Venezuelan oil tanker but part-operated by Italian energy giant, $55 billion ENI, and has been caught up in US sanctions since disputed elections questioned the legitimacy of the Venezuelan President. The tilting had been of concern since it was first noticed in July and crews later discovered water leaking on board. The situation has gotten progressively worse since then.
It was only last week that a representative of the fishing community in Trinidad, Gary Aboud, was able to get close enough to the heavily listing Venezuelan oil tanker to show first hand how serious the risk is, especially with the Caribbean in a particularly active 2020 hurricane season that is only due to end by November 30.
Combined with drone footage to show the angle of tilting, his two and a half minute video (link below) shows the risk that poor weather would have on the tanker, and what he highlights as a lack of urgency by the Trinidad and Tobago Government or the international community to act.
With the oil spill in Mauritius in August, it was the UN shipping regulator, the International Maritime Organization, who sent representatives to co-ordinate the Wakashio oil spill efforts for the United Nations but they were widely seen to have exacerbated the oil spill crisis. Ironically, the news from the Caribbean comes as the IMO is debating oil and emission targets for ships in London this week, amid criticism that environmental standards are being watered down by this UN agency.
Gary Aboud, Corporate Secretary of Trinidad and Tobago based environmental group, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, went to the site of the Nabarima, moored in Venezuelan waters, to highlight the risk posed to the over 50,000 fishermen of Trinidad and Tobago that rely on the sea, the potential long term ecological harm to species in this coral reef and biodiversity rich region, as well as the broader regional risk to the Caribbean given the direction of the currents and wind at this time of year.
Reports from the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian had been calling for action since early September.
According to a spokesperson for Trinidad and Tobago’s Energy Minister, Franklin Khan, who spoke to the Guardian on September 4, “The [Trinidad and Tobago] Energy Ministry through the Venezuelan Embassy has offered any assistance, technical or logistical to the Government of Venezuela that it may require. Also, the Minister of Energy is in contact with his Venezuelan counterpart for further updates as they become available.”
An emotional video by Gary Aboud first posted on September 7, six weeks ago, had highlighted the growing risk of the tilting oil tanker, combined with the ongoing hurricane season – the second most active on record.
The Nabarima has a capacity of 1.4 million barrels, and was abandoned without a crew by the Venezuelan state and a joint venture with Italian energy giant, ENI, following sanctions from the United States in late 2019.
Flooding since August
There had been images and warnings about water coming on board when Venezuelan oil worker Eudis Girot first posted these on August 30. Eudis Girot is a tugboat captain for the Maritime Division of Venezuela’s State Oil Company, PDVSA, and Executive Director of Venezuela’s FUTPV Oil Workers Union. He has actively championed issues of poor worker conditions and environmental risk in Venezuela in the past.
Threat to the wider Caribbean
With the prevailing currents and wind direction, an oil spill of this magnitude would threaten the entire Southern Caribbean for years to come.
This includes the major tourism hotspots such as Grenada, Barbados, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Caribbean Coral Network at risk
The chain of islands and corals are part of a unique genetic coral reef system extending from Venezuela all the way along the Caribbean to the coast of Florida.
The coral reefs that originate from Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago are foundational to the health of coral ecosystems across the entire Caribbean. Each island has a genetically unique set of corals that initially evolved from Trinidadian corals, and the ocean microbiome (the bacteria that grow around corals) are critical to give corals their color and life. Other coral systems in the Caribbean had been dependent on receiving nutrients and healthy bacteria from these source corals over thousands of years.
It is these bacteria that could be harmed by a major oil spill, leading to long term genetic damage to the already climate-stressed corals.
Oil spills and their harmful chemicals (like PAHs) cause long term genetic impact on coastal ecosystems, impacting gender balance of species and other parts of the genetic code that humans are only just understanding. This can lead to long term collapse of once healthy marine ecosystems, as has been seen elsewhere in the world.
Fourth oil spill risk from Venezuela in past 3 months
If the oil tanker Nabarima were to disintegrate, this would be the fourth major oil spill from Venezuela in the past 3 months alone, and by far the worst. This is in addition to a major oil spill off the coast of Brazil in September last year from a ship that had refueled in Venezuela.
Venezuela has already been criticized for two major oil leaks in National Parks in the past two months alone, as well as ongoing air emission pollution. This comes amid growing concerns surrounding particular refineries in Venezuela run by state oil company, PDVSA.