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The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) will utilise the $20 million which it fined Petrotrin to “rehabilitate” areas impacted by the oil spill along the country’s southwestern coastline. Several concerns have been raised about the size of the fine and whether that money would be deposited into the consolidated fund, making it harder to access.
But EMA officials confirmed to the Sunday Guardian that the multi-million dollar fine would be deposited into an environmental account which gives them access to it without the bureaucratic ministerial or Cabinet approval. The money, according to a consent agreement signed between Petrotrin and the EMA, would be used to “assess, rehabilitate and do remedial work” in the affected areas. The EMA said that contrary to earlier conservative reports, close to 10.5 miles of beach was affected by the spills.
This small victory for the EMA was hard won, as the agency is currently dealing with archaic legislations that make it hard to leverage or take action against offending companies. The EMA latched on to only one CEC granted to Petrotrin back in 2006 in order to impose the $20 million fine for the consequences of the environmental breach that led to over 7,000 barrels of oil being emptied into the Gulf of Paria on December 17, and another spill on December 26.
Petrotrin President Khalid Hassanali and the EMA’s Dr Allan Bachan signed off on the consent agreement on January 7 where Petrotrin accepted liability for the two spills which contributed to the oily mess washing up on miles of beach along the peninsula. The agreement states that Petrotrin was the “violator” of four clauses of the Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC).
The unprecedented spill forced the EMA to invoke Section 25 of its legislation for the first time. Enacting that law means that the $20 million would be placed in an environmental fund. “The fine is not for the breach, the fine is for the consequence of the breach,” one high-level member said. This means that Petrotrin, because of the short legislative arms of the EMA, may be able to side step any financial responsibility for the spills and pay for the clean-up operations alone.
“There is no way to fine them for negligence, because the law is not made up that way,” the source said. The Environmental Management Act legislation leaves companies in operation before 2001 without the now regulatory Certificate of Environmental Compliance (CEC), and also leaves the EMA without any leverage to enforce environmental compliance. “You know how hard we had to search for that one CEC to leverage on Petrotrin?” one EMA member revealed.
While residents, environmentalists and wild life enthusiasts continue to reel under the strain of almost one month of clean-up operations, the EMA has admitted that it cannot force the state company to adopt better maintenance practices or preventative maintenance. The Sunday Guardian met with senior staffers at the EMA and was told of frustration driven by archaic legislation, which left the body virtually powerless to prevent environmental mishaps and little room to leverage on companies violating environmental rules.
“The bottom line is we need to advocate to change the legislation,” one EMA member said. The bigger question though, is whether this sort of environmental disaster can happen again. “We cannot stop them, we cannot change how they do business. It could very well happen again,” one member said.
The environmental company, the Sunday Guardian learnt, has already met with a member of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for assistance on the next step in rehabbing the affected areas. One representative has accompanied EMA members for an on-site assessment of the damage.