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Oil spills and other disasters

By Michael Harris

The series of oil spills which began on December 17 and whose effects, it is now abundantly clear, are going to be with us for a long time to come, presents us with an excellent opportunity to evaluate the true crisis management capacities of this Government.
By now it should be apparent to anyone who has been following the unfolding events that the spills which have affected the entire south-western coastal area constitute potentially the most massive ecological disaster this country has ever faced.
It should also be clear now, after three weeks of charges and counter charges, claims and counter claims, that the oil spills have simply overwhelmed the capacity and the competence of the key stakeholders to mount an effective response. This is the true disaster revealed by the oil which spilled.
Standing front and centre amongst those stakeholders is Petrotrin. It is obvious that the company was caught completely off guard and that in both its management of the clean-up operations as well as in its corporate communications effort, the problem has exposed serious deficiencies and inadequacies in its crisis management planning and resources.
While we can readily acknowledge that the rapid succession of leaks discovered in different areas of the South-West would have certainly presented a challenge, the fact is that, under any proper crisis management plan, the response to each incident would have already been prescribed and the only issue would have been the availability of resources required to address the multiplicity of events.
But even in the case of a shortage of resources there must have been, in any proper crisis plan, established criteria for prioritising the response of the company in respect of the most critical areas affected. Above all, there needed to be in place a proper communications strategy for constantly addressing all stakeholders, and the country at large, in terms of what the company’s response was going to be and why it needed to be so.
The record shows that from the very start the entire crisis was mismanaged. On December 18, a day after the very first spill was observed at Pointe-a-Pierre, even as Petrotrin was issuing a self-congratulatory press release stating that it “has mobilised all available resources to manage the spill-response efforts in an effective and efficient manner and the situation is under control,” large patches of oil were observed floating off the coast of La Brea.
Thereafter it went from bad to worse. Whether it was on the several, progressively longer time-spans, given for completion of the clean-up, or the patently absurd estimates of the cost of the clean-up; or the claims that the clean-up in certain areas was finished when the entire country could see on television that oil still covered everything, or the sight of company officials negotiating with La Brea residents as to how many of them would get jobs in the clean-up operations, Petrotrin’s efforts to date have smacked not only of sheer amateurishness but of a complete failure to appreciate the true gravity of the situation.
But Petrotrin is not the only culprit in this disaster. The Government’s inability to act decisively and strategically was also manifest. The fact is from the moment it was clear that it was not one oil spill but a series of spills, each more inexplicable than the previous, the Government should have declared a limited state of emergency and taken control of the action at a national level.
This is so particularly given the suspicions that “two of the 11 oil spills” were the result of deliberate and malicious intent. If in fact there was an attempt at “economic terrorism” as some Government supporters have claimed then the government had a right to intervene and take control of the entire operation rather than leave it to the management at Petrotrin.
Instead, perhaps guided by the Prime Minister’s utterly asinine statement that the damage from the spill “was not as bad as she had expected” the Government and all the relevant agencies simply stood on the sidelines, observing what was happening without any indication that they had a crucial role to play.
This is particularly the case with the Office of Disaster Preparedness Management (ODPM) and the Environmental Management Authority (EMA). It may be that the ODPM is only equipped to handle one disaster at a time and, preoccupied as it was with relief for St Lucia and St Vincent, could not engage in relief efforts for south-west Trinidad or it may be that the ODPM’s definition of disaster does not embrace oil spills, but whatever the reason it is clear that the ODPM did little or nothing and is still doing little or nothing, to help with this disaster.
As far as the EMA is concerned the situation is even worse. The agency charged with managing and monitoring environmental affairs stood idly by while the worst ecological disaster in our history unfolded and was only spurred to action when the civic group Fishermen and Friends of the Sea publicly reminded it of its authority and responsibility under the law.
The abysmal failure of officialdom to respond in a timely and effective manner to this disaster is not simply a matter of incompetence. Although, to be sure, when every state agency is looked upon as simply a locus of jobs for the boys, regardless of the qualifications or competence of the “boys”, then the inability of these agencies to respond effectively to crises should not surprise us.
What however this sorry tale also reveals is that the instinct to spin every event in such a way as to obtain political advantage and the instinct to cover up events that may spell political disadvantage has become so all-pervasive that those in charge, whether at company level, state agency level, or at government level, find it impossible now to discern when and which issues transcend the partisan political realm and affect the entire nation.

• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and
commentator on politics and society in T&T and the wider Caribbean
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