The Petrotrin oil spill catastrophe has dramatised the environmental impact of industrial activity on the country’s natural life. For years, fisherfolk and conservationists have been ringing the alarm bell on activity detrimental to the fish, bird and wildlife population. Over the past couple of weeks, the evidence has been both glaring and galling.
On a daily basis, the public is greeted with images of fishes stuck in black oil, birds drowning in crude and crabs and other shellfish trapped in oil-smothered mangroves. While various agencies are keeping tabs on the financial and technical aspects of this oil disaster, the public interest also demands a detailed impact assessment on the country’s stock of fish, birds and wildlife.
Our natural life resources are not only an important source of livelihood for coastal communities; they also constitute a vital part of the rich natural heritage that is our common patrimony. All relevant agencies, including the Environmental Management Authority, the Institute of Marine Affairs, the Ministry of Food Production which has responsibility for fisheries, and the Ministry of the Environment should be working together to gather empirical data on this disaster.
The civil society group, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), has been out front in speaking for affected communities and our natural life ever since the disaster erupted a week before Christmas. FFOS has raised several questions that are deserving of answers from both Petrotrin and the Government regarding the spill itself as well as the clean-up exercise. It is remarkable that neither party has responded to the group’s concerns and allegations in any meaningful way.
Petrotrin needs to be much more forthright in responding to the concerns of the community and those who represent them. It is also the responsibility of state agencies to ensure that the public interest is their very first priority.
Public concerns regarding the safety of fish and crustaceans from areas along the Gulf coast need to be properly addressed by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Consumer Affairs. At the same time, the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Community Development and the Ministry of Social Development must stay focused on the human impact of this disaster.
As devastating as it appears, what we are seeing may only be a small part of the full extent of the problem and its implications.
Already, the oil spill effect has spread to the market where, this past weekend, the price of fish had escalated significantly, well ahead of the anticipated spike during the annual Lenten period beginning in March.
Given Petrotrin’s status as a state enterprise, it is important that Government ministries and state agencies observe the required arm’s length relationship with the company to ensure that the public interest is not compromised in providing oversight and enforcing regulations.
Ultimately, the public interest requires nothing less than an independent and comprehensive audit on the impact of this oil spill disaster in all its dimensions, including its effect on the country’s natural life.