Oil spills costing the Caribbean billions
This photo provided by the French Army shows oil leaking from the MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier ship that ran aground off the southeast coast of Mauritius, Tuesday August.11, 2020.

As the frequency of oil spills continue to threaten the ecology of the Caribbean, it is also becoming a strain on the public purse.

According to the group of experts on the scientific aspects of marine environmental protection (GESAMP) 2007, there are an estimated 250 oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea annually.

The world’s largest ever tanker spill occurred off Trinidad and Tobago in 1979 when two tankers collided and 287,000 tonnes of crude oil was discharged to the sea.

According to industry stakeholders, a medium-large oil spill could be between US$2.4 billion and US$9.4 billion. Included in this estimation is the cost of clean-up and compensation, damage to agricultural lands, fishery and wildlife.

In Jamaica the Government has established the national oil spill contingency plan in order to ensure that the country can effectively respond to such an incident. This follows an incident in November 2000 at the Petrojam refinery where 25,000 barrels of gasoline caught fire. The estimated loss was $45,000,000.

Similar contingency plans have also been implemented in other Caribbean countries including Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, among others. But the funds set aside for dealing with oil spills puts burden on budgets which are already strained.

In February this year, Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Sir Ronald Sanders, called for a more comprehensive international legal framework for dealing with liability for oil spills and ecological damage.

While speaking about the oil spill which took place in Peru on January 15, Sanders argued “all of this points to the need for a more comprehensive international legal framework for dealing with liability for oil spills and ecological damage. It also calls for more definitive agreements between oil companies and individual states for dealing effectively with ecological disasters of this kind.”

The OAS Permanent Council unanimously adopted the declaration which appealed to international and regional financial and development institutions to provide emergency humanitarian aid to Peru.

A 2004 study, entitled “GIWA Regional Assessment 3a for the Caribbean Small Island subsystem”, revealed that thousands of large vessels transporting oil, gas, and chemicals pass between the small islands annually resulting in high risks for oil and chemical spills.

The study highlighted Trinidad and Tobago, because of its petroleum-based industry, is at very high risk. The last major oil spill in Trinidad and Tobago occurred in 2000. These spills have had short-term damaging impacts on the coastlines, particularly within the Gulf of Paria. There are also reports of tar balls located on the beaches of the Cayman Islands and Curaçao, and at the Barlovento beaches of Barbados.

The most important regional legal framework is the convention for the protection and development of the marine environment of the wider Caribbean region (WCR) (Cartagena Convention).

The Cartagena convention deals with oil-related issues through the protocol concerning co-operation in combating oil spills in the wider Caribbean Region (oil spills protocol) and the protocol concerning pollution from land-based sources and activities (lbs protocol).

At the same time, it is noted that many Caribbean countries have not ratified the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL 73/78).

Meanwhile, the Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP) is working overtime to protect the marine environment through decisions that are intended to control, reduce and prevent pollution by oil from both land-and ocean-based sources.

Andrew Laidley

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