Tale of two oil spill stories
On Christmas Eve 2013, in the midst of one of the most destructive oil spills in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, two headlines carried contrasting stories. The Express headline shouted “SABOTAGE” over a report by Anna Ramdass. The report stated that “the oil spill at Rancho Quemado has already been classified as sabotage and a report was made to the police by operators Trinity Oil, Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine said yesterday.”
A contrasting tale appeared in the Guardian with its headline “Environmentalists fear eco-disaster...Shut down operations”. This story by Yvonne Baboolal quoted extensively from Gary Aboud of FFOS. According to this story, “Asked to comment on Petrotrin’s claim of suspected sabotage, he said: “Sabotage is a very convenient excuse for incompetence and gross negligence.”
Aboud said in 2003, then chairman of the Institute of Marine Affairs, Professor John Agard, said there were 20,000 leaks in gas transmission pipelines in the Gulf of Paria alone. “Are the politicians saying those are 20,000 sabotage leaks? What has any minister in any government and any CEO in any state company done about these leaks?”
So, according to FFOS, the public is facing an oily holiday season with the vengeance of black gold repaying Petrotrin for its incompetence and gross negligence. But, for the Energy Minister, signs are there of sabotage, the deliberate contamination of our environment for reasons yet unknown.
The reality is that the oil sector in many developing countries such as Nigeria has suffered from both sabotage and incompetence on the part of state enterprises. Thus, the main issue to be dealt with is that of criminal liability. Section 70 of the Environmental Management Act (“EM Act”) creates criminal liability on the part of any person “who through the release or handling of any pollutant or hazardous substance…knowingly or recklessly endangers human life or health, commits an offence, and is liable on conviction on indictment, to a fine of one hundred thousand dollars and imprisonment for two years”.
Would the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) tell us in its 18 years of existence whether any criminal proceedings have been initiated for endangerment of human life and health by the release or handling of pollutants? Is it that in the last 18 years, no person has knowingly or recklessly through the release of pollutants endangered human life or health? We must really be an environmentally responsible nation!
To return to the two tales. If FFOS is correct about poor maintenance practices at Petrotrin, then Petrotrin may have a case to answer under Section 70 of the EM Act under the basis of recklessly endangering human life or health by virtue of the release of oil into the environment under circumstances as occurred recently. However, if Petrotrin is correct that it is a case of sabotage, then the saboteurs have a case to answer on the basis of deliberately releasing oil into the environment and so endangering human life or health. Either scenario leads us to clear criminal conduct and therefore the investigation of this environmental tragedy that is now being played out in this season of joy or festivity must be handled independently without fear or favour.
The Trinidad Express has reported that the technical committee has now been established to investigate the spill. This committee comprises Prof John Agard, Andrew Jupiter, Dr Allan Bachan (Chairman of the EMA) and Dr Indar Ramnarine (chairman of the Institute of Marine Affairs). So looking at the composition of this Committee, there can be no doubt as to technical competence of the investigators.
However, what is noticeably missing is the component that would deal with the possible criminal circumstances. Can we expect a proper investigation? If there are possible criminal consequences, who in the investigating team has experience in investigation of environmental crimes? There is the possibility of a crime that has traumatised our rural coastal communities and dealt a serious blow to the heart of our economy. There is need for much more in the investigation of the various oil spills as the failure to address this environmental crime will simply add to the downward criminal spiral of this nation.
Prof Rajendra Ramlogan