It was early this week that I came across a heart wrenching video on TikTok. The video in question was a repost of an original one filmed by a member of the Fisherman and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), an environmental conservation organisation based in Trinidad and Tobago. The repost on TikTok, from an anonymous account, has now gained over 1 million views. The footage, filmed on 8 August 2021 on a small boat by Gary Aboud—the Corporate Secretary of FFOS and first uploaded to his Facebook—showcased a terrible oil spill that occurred on that date in the Gulf of Paria, Trinidad. The spill is the latest in a long list of similar cases that have devastated the country’s waters.
While Aboud was describing the scene it appeared as if he was wearing gloves, on closer inspection those were not gloves but thick black oil. Crude oil. It was horrifying. What was even more horrifying was how the oil company responsible appeared to be getting rid of the issue. Aboud stated in the footage, “Please share this video. We have a massive oil spill in the gulf of Paria right now.” Pointing to a boat nearby, Aboud continued, “They are not collecting it all.”
Aboud stated that the FFOS had notified the needed authorities about the spill—specifically the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) and the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA), “They’re driving around and chopping it up rather than putting booms around it to collect it.” The boat is seen rotating and driving around in circles, “All day long we have been calling IMA, EMA, the administration of energy—no response. The oil continues to flow.” Rather than collecting the oil, it appeared that the company was breaking it up with the boat—by doing so the oil would sink to the ocean bed, thus further contaminating the food chain.
The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian reported that the FFOS were demanding full transparency from the relevant agencies on the oil—stating that the country’s authorities must urgently enforce the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) as “every drop of hydrogen” from the crude oil will have “an ever-lasting impact on our marine system.” Aboud continued in the footage by saying, “It’s so irresponsible. The oil causes cancer. It contaminates the fishery. It kills all people. Why aren’t they putting out booms?…I’m damn angry. Look at this shit. I could cry, I’m real angry.” So, how did this terrible oil spill happen?
Lisa Premchand—Programme Director of FFOS—told Screen Shot that Trinidad’s century-long history in the oil extractive sector has resulted in a poorly-maintained infrastructure. Premchand stated that “In November of 2018, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago (GORTT) took a decision to close down our national oil company Petrotrin. With its closure, the GORTT created two State-owned companies: Heritage Petroleum Ltd and Paria Fuel Trading Co. Ltd and vested them with control of Petrotrin’s assets.” Petrotrin’s closure has left many of the company’s remaining old pipelines in terrible conditions.
Premchand believes that this poor maintenance of the pipes is what caused the spill, “This led to persistent ruptures which cause oil spills within our waters—as the corrosive environment in which these pipelines are situated necessitates their constant maintenance. We believe that this present oil spill was a consequence of a poorly maintained pipeline.” So, who is directly responsible for the spill?
According to Premchand, FFOS believes, “The state-owned Paria Fuel Trading Company appears to be the company responsible for the spill.” She continued, “As is customary with oil companies operating in the developing world, the company’s bottom line is always going to be of more significance than the protection of the environment. It is more economically feasible to “cover up” an oil spill as opposed to cleaning it up.”
On 9 August 2021, the day after FFOS released their footage, the leak along the 12-inch crude pipeline that caused the spill was repaired, as reported by the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian. Paria Fuel Trading released a statement that “requisite repair works were undertaken, and the line was isolated at approximately 11:35 a.m. yesterday.” The press release by the company stated as follows:
“A leak along a 12-inch crude pipeline on land was identified as the source for the spill. The requisite repair works were undertaken, and the line was isolated at approximately 11.35 a.m. yesterday (Sunday August 08, 2021). Assurance checks conducted today (Monday August 09, 2021) by Paria Fuel Trading Company Limited (Paria) revealed that there are no additional leaks along the pipeline. The spill is contained, and residual clean-up is ongoing. All relevant regulatory authorities continue to be updated periodically.”
Premchand told the Guardian earlier today, however, that there appears to be no evidence that shows booms actually being used by Paria Fuel, “Through our drone imagery, there are no booms in the Gulf of Paria around this spill to contain the oil from spreading even further.” Some of the satellite images, released by SkyTruth, also depicted chilling visuals of the oil spill.
Although this appears as if the company has rectified the problem it caused, Premchand pointed out certain concerns to Screen Shot. According to Premchand, had the FFOS and other local fishermen not filmed this “cover up” of the spill and continuously highlighted it, the situation may never have been resolved. “Had we not shot our video or brought attention to the matter, the public would still be under the impression that it was a ‘sheen’ of oil. Transparency and accountability from those engaged in the extractive industry is of paramount importance to every hydrocarbon producing country. If the GORTT does not wish to hold the oil industry accountable, we will.”
The responsibility doesn’t just lie with the oil companies that are wreaking havoc on Trinidad’s marine environment—part of the blame is put on the government by the FFOS. Premchand stated that although Paria Fuel Trading is ultimately responsible for the spill, the GORTT (Government of Trinidad and Tobago) has facilitated these situations through its inability to enforce the environmental laws—thus giving these oil companies free reign on the country’s waters. The government has “failed to maintain Petrotrin’s old assets which have been the root cause of many of the oil spills which we have been experiencing recently.” She explained that when the volume of an oil spill exceeds one gallon, it should be immediately reported to the Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries who should act by enforcing the emergency protocol of the NOSCP.
Unfortunately, it appears that Trinidad and Tobago has a devastating history with oil spills and has been a frequent disaster for the islands. Premchand revealed to Screen Shot that in a Freedom of Information Request obtained by the FFOS revealed that “between 2018 and 2021 there have been 498 oil spills in Trinidad and Tobago.” The report confirmed to the FFOS that many of those responsible for the spills were neither fined or punished. She stated that “While many of the reported quantities of these spills are minimal, every drop of hydrocarbon spilled into our marine environment accumulates and magnifies and has an everlasting effect on our fishery.”
Although the oil leak has reportedly been fixed, the impact is still ongoing and is greatly affecting the wildlife in the area. Aboud shared more footage yesterday that showed a magnificent frigatebird smothered in black oil. Premchand explained that “Hydrocarbons are [incredibly] detrimental to our fishery and marine birds and mammals that reside in the Gulf of Paria. So far, we have recovered numerous birds affected by the hydrocarbons and placed them in the care of a local NGO that does animal rehabilitation.”
Not only does this oil spill have terrible consequences on the wildlife, it creates great health risks to the citizens of the islands. Premchand provided details from a recent peer-reviewed study conducted by the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) on the link between the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) contamination in fish from the Gulf of Paria and the risk of cancer. The FFOS stated that the comprehensive study concluded that there is a greater risk of cancer due to these and hydrocarbons and that even “14 per cent of our citizens who eat fish from our national food basket of the Gulf of Paria have an ‘adverse risk’ of acquiring non-cancerous diseases such as the breaking down of red blood cells, cataracts, kidney and liver damage, jaundice and redness and inflammation of the skin.”
Premchand also highlighted the incredibly high levels of mercury that was discovered in the islands’ waters as a result of trying to become a signatory in the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The Minamata Convention is an international treaty—created in 2013 with 128 signatories—for the protection of human health and the environment at the hands of mercury and its released compounds.
Premchand declared to Screen Shot that “As Trinidad and Tobago is not a signatory to the Minamata Convention, our country was required to conduct a Mercury Initial Assessment (MIA) in order to assist with the preparations for the ratification and implementation of the Convention. The results of this MIA concluded that out of the 17 commercially viable fish species sampled, 5 had mercury concentrations up to 5 times greater than the World Health Organization (WHO) consumption guidelines.”
Not only does this oil have a detrimental impact on our environment as a whole but it also devastates the livelihoods of local fishermen. Premchand stated that, “fishermen in affected areas have not been able to fish since last Sunday (8 August 2021). On the sea, everyday spent not fishing is money lost and in these times of economic uncertainty, many fishermen are hoping they can resume regular activities.” She continued by saying that the FFOS has received a number of complaints citing that a lot of fishermen’s equipment have been damaged by the crude oil and is now rendered useless. The crude oil gets everywhere and is near impossible to remove. The destruction of the said equipment could destroy a person’s livelihood.
“In Trinidad and Tobago many of our fishermen make substantial investments ($40,000 TTD) to purchase nets and other equipment used for commercial fishing. If destroyed, in many instances their livelihood is ruined,” Premchand explained. The FFOS received reports that local fishers from Marabella, Claxton Bay, Carli Bay, Orange Valley and Waterloo had nets damaged by the oil spill.
When asked who the environmental organisation wanted this message to reach, the FFOS replied that they wanted the footage captured to be seen by the people of Trinidad and Tobago as well as the wider Caribbean. Premchand summed up by stating that “This should be a lesson to those countries and to our government, that a mismanaged hydrocarbon industry is a recipe for environmental disaster.”