Locals Point to Looming Marine Disaster in the Southern Caribbean

A report by Jason Dookeran for The Earth Island Journal.

An idle oil tanker has been listing in the waters between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, posing threat to ecosystems and coastal communities. 

The sun rises over the Atlantic as a massive barge holding over 1.3 million barrels of oil floats serenely on calm waters. It might seem idyllic, but this vessel — which has been parked in the waters between Venezuela and The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago for more than a decade — could spell disaster for countless sea creatures and the people who depend on them.

The FSO Nabarima, sailing under the Venezuelan flag, is an oil storage platform used to contain crude oil extracted from Venezuela’s Corocoro oil field. Typically, oil is stored in vessels like the Nabarima before being transferred to tankers for transport abroad. But Venezuela’s political crisis has complicated things. Since current President Nicolas Maduro was re-elected in 2018 in what international observers have called a rigged election, the South American nation has been struck with international sanctions, including a petroleum embargo by the US, which was previously the largest purchaser of Venezuelan oil. As markets dried up, Venezuela was forced to store oil.

The Nabarima, which has been rusting for some time, collected its full quota of 1.3 million barrels of oil in its hold — nearly five times as much as the Exxon Valdez spilled in 1989. Then it started to take on water.

The barge’s problems aren’t entirely surprising. Because of government mismanagement, economic crisis, and international sanctions, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petroleo de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA) has let crucial infrastructure descend into disrepair. Experts say this disrepair has likelycontributed to several other recent spills in the region.

When the news broke in late August that the ship was taking on water, stakeholders in Trinidad and Tobago were unsure what to make of the situation. News coming from state media in Venezuela is heavily censored, making reports unreliable at best, and outright lies at worst. State owned oil companies in Trinidad and Tobago also have a track record of misleading citizens about the source and extent of oil spills. And in a September press release, Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries went to great lengths to advise the populace that the matter was in Venezuela’s hands, noting that officials from the island nation couldn’t enter Venezuelan waters without permission.

The statement was little comfort to locals who depend on the ocean for their living. “In our country, people are not acting seriously when it comes to oil spills,” says Kishore Boodram, assistant president of the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Fisherfolk Association. “If this tanker sinks, it will destroy our wildlife, our mangroves, fenceline coastal communities. It will wipe out fishing as a livelihood.” For an island nation like Trinidad and Tobago, a large enough oil could even make large areas of the coastline unlivable.

photo of gulf of paria
The Trinidad and Tobago town of Pointe a Pierre, located on the Gulf of Paria. Residents of Trinidad and Tobago are worried oil from an “FSO Nabarima” spill would reach their coast.

Trinidad and Tobago, a significant producer of oil in the region for over fifty years, has seen its share of oil spills in the past, each affecting the local flora and fauna deeply. French anti-pollution agency CEDRE cites a 1979 collision between a Greek oil tanker and other ship resulting in almost half a million tonnes of crude oil (3.6 million barrels) covering the Caribbean sea with a dark, ominous slick just north of Tobago. The 1979 disaster is recorded as the biggest ship-based spill in history.

While the Nabarima doesn’t hold the same volume of oil, a leak could still cause major damage to the coastal and ocean ecosystems of the region. Trinbagonian Non-Profit SpeSeas has been involved in studying the potential environmental impacts of spills in the area. According to researchers from the organization, a Nabarima spill would cause significant harm in the Gulf of Paria, the body of water separating Trinidad and Tobago from Venezuela. For one, the gulf provides vital migratory routes to marine mammals like dolphins and whales. Other marine life, such as birds and fish, would be at risk of being covered in the unyielding slick. Trinidad and Tobago also has important habitat for leatherback turtles, which are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Redlist, and a spill of this magnitude could reverse years of recovery seen by the species. A spill could also affect the natural mangrove swamps that protect the coastline of Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, and perhaps even other islands like Grenada, as well as shallow-water reefs, beaches, and rocky habitat.

Eudis Girot, head of the Unitary Federation Petroleum Workers of Venezuela (Futpve) has drawn international attention to the situation. He maintains that crucial resources needed for maintaining the vessel were diverted. As a result, “[The boat] is destroyed,” he told Energia16. “Only the mooring cables are keeping it afloat.”

Local Trinbagonian environmental activist group Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) has been lobbying the Trinidad and Tobago government to take action. The General Secretary of the organization, Mr. Gregory Aboud, has written local authorities and even appealed to the US and EU embassies to push the provincial government into action.

In response to the situation, PdVSA has said it will transfer oil from the Nabarima to another vessel, though it has not offered a timeline for the procedure, which itself poses a risk of an oil spill. Italian oil company Eni, which is a minority investor in the venture with PdVSA, said in September that the leak had been repaired and the barge was no longer listing. Trinidad and Tobago officials are awaiting permission to board the Nabarimato verify that claim.

The last public statement issued by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to citizens came at the start of September, leaving locals with the feeling that the government isn’t taking the situation seriously enough. The most vulnerable communities, those of the fishermen along the western coast of the island, are up in arms about the seemingly nonchalant reaction. Shankar Teelucksingh, a councilor for one of the nation’s fishing districts, spoke out about the government’s approach. “We are not hearing anything from the authorities who are our watchdogs,” Teelucksingh states. “Their lips are sealed, and they are being irresponsible.”

Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago entered into an agreement around oil spill cleanups in 2013. But based on both governments’ previous disaster responses, citizens are concerned that a spill of this size would not be dealt with swiftly or competently. The only thing residents of both countries can hope is that the oil is the tanker is emptied before the situation deteriorates and the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea are subjected to a spill.

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