The world may learn new details this week from the first non-Venezuelan-led assessment on the status of the FSO Nabarima following a visit by a team of Trinidad and Tobago experts yesterday. This was revealed by Amery Browne, the country’s Minister of Foreign and CARICOM (Caribbean Community) affairs during an October 20 interview on local radio station i.95.5 FM.
Browne said that the team elected by his country’s Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries would represent, “the first agency besides engineers of Venezuela” to be stepping foot on the damaged floating oil vessel which remains stranded in the Gulf of Paria carrying approximately 1.3 million barrels of crude oil.
He explained that the visit would allow T&T to generate a report using measurements, scientific data and samples of the contents of the vessel – and that details of the report would be disclosed during the week ending October 25.
A recent clandestine visit by environmental activist Gary Aboud of NGO, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, confirmed reports that the vessel was tilting precariously, three months after he initially sounded the alarm on the potential for a devastating oil spill to occur in the gulf which separates his home country from Venezuela.
The government of Trinidad and Tobago (GORTT) has since found itself grappling with difficult questions about how to respond to a crisis beyond a maritime border it shares with a significantly larger nation.
“There seemed to be an expectation in some quarters that the government, because of the concern, must act through some kind of illegal means. That simply is not possible,” Browne said.
Browne sought to provide clarity on actions taken by GORTT to address the situation since Aboud and other activists have accused local officials of inaction and toeing the line of the Venezuelan government.
Several press releases from the country’s government ministries over the past three months have deferred to official Venezuelan statements saying the vessel had been “stabilised”. One press release drew reference to an official Venezuelan statement claiming that photographs showing otherwise were “propaganda”.
Browne insisted that GORTT had taken the threat seriously from day one saying that they immediately made a request via diplomatic channels to visit the vessel despite reassurances from the Venezuelan government that there was no issue.
Browne said that a visit had been approved for September 28 before suddenly being cancelled by Venezuelan authorities due to “circumstances beyond their control”. A new date was set for October 20.
“We immediately got back to them and we informed them that we would not wish to wait until October, We want to do an immediate fly-by or sail around of the vessel at least to be able to lay eyes on the situation, to get an idea of the tilt or the list or any of the other parameters so that we know if this is an unfolding environmental emergency. Venezuela responded that they would not be able to facilitate that,” he said.
Aboud and other concerned citizens now question why this information had been kept out of the public domain until now.
Trinidad and Tobago shares a treaty with Venezuela on the delimitation of marine and submarine areas in the Gulf of Paria that requires that both parties “inform each other about any indication of actual, imminent or potential pollution of a serious nature which occurs in the maritime frontier zone.”
Trinidad and Tobago, however, is among a small group of nations in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) states whose government has given little public consideration to signing the Escazú Agreement – a groundbreaking treaty that deepens the link between environmental protection and human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Ratifying the Escazú Agreement, which is one signature short of coming into effect, would help to guarantee the public’s right to information on environmental issues such as with the FSO Nabarima.
Echoing the spirit of the Escazú Agreement, Aboud now says that the crisis calls for a united regional response given the potential for the oil spill to affect the entire Caribbean.
“Five of the seven of the world’s marine turtles live in our Caribbean sea and each island has a tourism product that depends on whales, on dolphins, on fish, on crabs, on a clean and healthy sea,” he said in a video uploaded to Facebook October 20.
He called for a binding agreement among all CARICOM members that would allow the nations to pool information, resources and human capital to address shared threats.
Since Aboud’s October 16 visit to the damaged vessel, The United States Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago put out a statement calling for “immediate action” and reassured that “activities undertaken to avert an ecological disaster” would not be in contravention of any sanctions imposed against Venezuela.
Browne said that if GORTT’s assessment determines the vessel to be unstable and a valid threat to the environment, there are measures that T&T can take to press for further action.
“Those actions can be rehabilitative work on the vessel, removal of the oil which would be the ideal scenario and there are a number of other actions which we would be able to disclose once the report is in our hands.”
Recent international reports have stated that Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PVDSA), has positioned a crude tanker called the ICARO to participate in the unloading of oil from the FSO Nabarima. A person familiar with the matter told Reuters that PDVSA planned to offload some of the crude onboard via a ship-to-ship transfer.
According to Aboud, images obtained from SkyTruth appear to show that process underway. He now warns, however, that there are insufficient measures in place to contain any spillage that may occur during the transfer.
In a separate interview with the Trinidad Express, Browne credited “the strong concern and interest of the people of Trinidad and Tobago to the Nabarima situation” for helping to encourage GORTT to pursue solutions.