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Response to Tobago oil spill highlights need to review contingency plan

In the aftermath of the recent oil spill that has impacted beaches in Tobago and spread as far as Grenada and Venezuela, Professor Judith Gobin of The University of the West Indies is calling for an urgent review of Trinidad and Tobago’s National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP).

Professor Judith Gobin

The NOSCP, approved in 2013, is designed to mitigate the impacts of oil spills and other maritime environmental incidents through a coordinated emergency response involving multiple agencies. However, in an interview with CN contributor Klysha Best for the Altos March 1 episode, Prof Gobin stated bluntly that “we failed” to properly implement this plan after the barge began leaking oil near Tobago.

“If you go to the ministry’s website, you will actually see the plan. This is an emergency plan that should have kicked in,” Gobin said. The plan she said is quite specific, naming the organisations, and the various actors and providing a timeframe to kick in. Yet she noted it took around 5–6 days for the Coast Guard to respond, by which time the oil had already spread considerably.

Gobin emphasised the critical need to revisit the NOSCP immediately to determine why it did not function as intended. “We need to go back to that plan and figure out why it did not kick in. Is it that it needs to be revised?” she asked.

As an oil and gas-based economy, Trinidad and Tobago has ready access to equipment that could have reduced the volume of oil being released, but a lack of timely action allowed the slick to expand unchecked.

While applauding the government’s cleanup efforts, Gobin stressed that preventing similar incidents must be the top priority. “We are grateful that it didn’t actually come with the full force or magnification it could have…We really need to figure out how we need to avoid this in the future.”

The environmental impacts have already been severe, but she warned of potentially worse long-term effects as well.

Gobin explained that the heavier oil particles sinking to the ocean floor “are going to be there for a long time, because these materials take a very long time to degrade.” This could lead to bioaccumulation of toxic hydrocarbons in the food chain as smaller organisms consume the polluted sediments.

The long-lasting hydrocarbons on the sea floor also pose an ongoing threat to reef ecosystems that could take years or decades to recover if they survive at all. “The immediate area would have been decimated, meaning covered with oil and all our invertebrates and the coral reefs and so on, they would have been damaged,” Gobin reiterated.

Obtaining financial compensation from the responsible parties will also be crucial. Gobin stated, “Trinidad and Tobago needs to move aggressively to ascertain all of these things, who the owners are, because as you would know, there’s the barge, there’s the tugboat. Was it something with the barge or the tugboat itself? Who is going to stand the bounce of that insurance?”

Maritime lawyer Nyree Alfonso has identified the tugboat involved as the Solo Creed, registered in Tanzania. Gobin stressed the importance of rapidly determining all ownership and insurance details in order to pursue compensation through international maritime laws and treaties that Trinidad and Tobago has signed.

However, she cautioned: “The compensation from outside will not happen in the very near future. Everyone knows this sort of international maritime law. It’s going to take a long time. But having said that, we need to move now and aggressively.”

In the interim, Gobin said the T&T government will likely need to directly compensate any individuals or businesses that have suffered damage to their livelihoods from the spill.


In addition to the NOSCP review, she recommended:

• Strengthening maritime border patrol to track all vessel movements in T&T’s waters. The fact that the barge’s presence went unnoticed until it struck a reef highlighted gaps in surveillance.

• Incorporating international treaties on maritime environmental protection into domestic legislation to ensure proper legal frameworks exist for compensation claims.

• Improving communication protocols so incidents are immediately reported through official channels and social media, allowing a rapid response.