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Where is the oil spill report?
Where is the report of the National Environmental Assessment Task Force (NEATF) that was promised by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar in January, 2014 to address the environmental impact of the December 2013 Petrotrin oil spill that devastated Trinidad’s South West Peninsula? Environmental advocacy group Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) put in a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the report on August 14, 2014.
On July 10, 2015, almost a year later, the Permanent Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister replied to FFOS that the request for the report was denied. The Office of the Prime Minister explained by a template letter, with tick-boxes, that the NEATF report received a Certificate of Exemption because it is “a document which has been considered by Cabinet and which is related to an issue that is or has been before Cabinet.”
This is not an adequate response from a transparent, democratic government regarding the impact of what is T&T’s most destructive environmental disaster. Is it a cover-up by the State of a State owned company caused disaster? Or is it that the report was never completed? One of the people asking why the Prime Minister’s promise is not being kept is Wayne Henry, a 50-something year-old fisherman of La Brea.
Henry has lived and fished there all his life. He told me: “Since the first set of oil spill we have been getting fish kills. Porpoise have washed up dead. EMA have come here. They don’t give us any information. People from the university came here but when we called them they never told us anything.”
The lack of information breeds distrust. Henry said: “I don’t know what it is that they are trying to hide.” Henry reports that, in the space of one week, six dead pelicans were found on Coffee Beach, La Brea. This is the beach where currents carried huge amounts of oil during the spill. A dead fish hawk, a dolphin and thousands of fish also washed up during the week. Henry thinks that it has to do with recent heavy rains that flushed out the oil-spilled, dispersant treated mangroves.
Another resident, an elderly gentleman, told me that he believes that the fish and animal kills are caused by polluting industries in Point Lisas. He explains that currents carry the dead fish to Coffee beach. A third local says that Coffee beach has always suffered from dead fish washing up onshore. He believes that it is caused by up-current fisher folk discarding unwanted bycatch.
A fourth resident fisher thinks it is a combination of all of the above causes. He says that sometimes the fish are alive but jerking and flopping about, gasping for air, when they are suffering from some kind of toxic effect. Other times they are dead before they hit the shore in which case he thinks they were discarded bycatch.
Is it caused by the oil spill or not? They don’t know. They have little education and all they can do is make a calculated guess. The true experts are the members of the National Environmental Assessment Task Force (NEATF). They, however, remain silent. Those who know the most say the least.
Walking around the village at Coffee Beach residents point out discards of the oil spill that was never removed. Behind and underneath one house was a bagasse-type material that was used to soak up crude oil. The clean-up effort was never cleaned.
I took a look at nearby mangroves. Orange booms still littered the mangrove. These were placed there to prevent oil from penetrating the delicate mangrove forest. It looks like once media attention was diverted from the spill Petrotrin and the agencies responsible for the clean-up washed their hands of the whole event, as if it never happened.
Residents mentioned that a few young people had become very ill since the oil spill. They were not sure if the oil spill was to blame. Trust is a two-way street. The residents, and this columnist, do not trust the authorities or Petrotrin with regard to the events that led up to the oil spill or the clean up event that took place afterwards.
It is certain that no proper environmental assessment or remediation can have taken place without the NEATF report. I personally risked my health by reporting on the oil spill at a time when Petrotrin was doing everything in its power to deny the extent of the oil spill. Hundreds of others did much more than I did and exposed themselves to harmful toxins.
Communities and ecosystems were assaulted and insulted by the spill. It is time to regain our trust by presenting the completed NEATF report so that the experts can assure us that communities and ecosystems are not at risk and that proper remediation is taking place. Is a promise a promise? Or is a promise broken?