On a fateful December day when Christmas shopping occupied the minds of most people, a 16-inch diameter sea line broke at the state-owned refinery, sending a rush of black fuel oil into the Gulf of Paria and along the south western coastline. The effect of that spill is still being felt today by fisherfolk and people in poor coastal communities. The Sunday Express takes a close look at the chain of events that led to this country’s worst environmental disaster in history.
This is the third in a series of articles by Camini Marajh, Head, Express Investigative Desk
For four days, the State oil and gas company, Petrotrin stayed quiet about a rupture on its No 10 sea line. No alarms were raised. No formal public alert was made. No news release issued that a Petrotrin sea line carrying a “high-risk” integrity rating had ruptured and spilled 7,453 barrels of fuel oil into the sea.
And even then, against a widening backdrop of damaged coastline and wetland as far as 27 kilometres away, Petrotrin was quick to rule out any connection to the blackened stretch of La Brea shoreline or the communities that were falling ill. It used preliminary tests of oil samples taken from the La Brea spill as evidence that this was not their oil. The test results it held out to the national community as proof were all conducted in the company’s state of the art laboratory at Pointe-a-Pierre.
For critical days as the oil made its way through the Gulf of Paria, killing hundreds of fish and birds, the State oil giant continued to provide conflicting and confusing information about what it knew and when. Company officials fed the country a pool of disinformation- firstly of a mystery leak, suggestions that it was crude from a marine platform offshore Brighton somewhere, of unknown saboteurs at work and a vague conspiracy which put the country’s energy assets at risk.
The No 10 Leak
It provided the bare bones about the No 10 leak at the refinery and continued to misrepresent the truth to the national community when it knew full well on the morning of the first major spill that it had thousands of unaccounted-for barrels of fuel oil somewhere in the Gulf of Paria.
The State-owned company failed to make full disclosure about the No 10 leak including basic information about the size of the spill and the potential risks posed to life and the environment. It sought instead to obscure the facts and cover-up its willful neglect of a severely corroded pipeline it kept dangerously in service and knew to be running on borrowed time.
“Preliminary Laboratory tests conducted on samples taken from the spill in the La Brea area suggest that this did not originate from Pointe-a-Pierre,” was the oft-repeated company line from the State-owned-and-managed petroleum giant. For long critical days, the responsible party to the largest environmental disaster on record asserted that it did not know the source of the leak.
Now fresh evidence obtained by this newspaper shows the extent of the cover-up and deceit perpetuated by State and company officials. Instead of a swift attempt to establish the facts, the company worked overtime to hide information.
Even as the Kamla Persad-Bissessar Cabinet huddled for emergency security talks on how best to protect the nation’s petroleum assets and prevent a repeat of the situation, Petrotrin was telling reporters about evidence of sabotage in two of the reported 11 spills when it knew this to be less than truthful.
At year’s end, Petrotrin president Khalid Hassanali told the world that there was “very compelling evidence that there were acts of commission”.
Errol McLeod, the then acting Prime Minister alluded to “acts of potential sabotage by unknown crazy persons”.
He promised the nation that “the People’s Partnership administration will leave no stone unturned to determine the cause of the spill.”
The former Petrotrin union boss and Minister of Labour, at a December 30 media briefing held at the Office of the Prime Minister, made clear: “Trinidad and Tobago must not be threatened by negligence or by serious acts of commission against its best interest.”
That was his last word on the matter. If any of the state-initiated probes into the oil spill has made a finding one way or the other about the root cause of the incident, the PP Government is yet to say.
On January 3, Petrotrin’s chairman, Lindsay Gillette, himself a former Minister of Energy in the Panday administration, repeated the company’s storyline.
“While the sources of these incidents have not been determined, strong evidence suggests direct and willful acts of sabotage.”
The hard evidence he proffered amounted to a report from one of the company’s lease operators about the removal of two bull plugs from separate well site production tanks at an on-shore facility at Rancho Quemado. According to Gillette, a special wrench was required to remove the three-inch bull plugs which sent 90 barrels of crude oil spilling to the ground. Eighty barrels were recovered.
Line Minister and the State regulator of the energy sector, Kevin Ramnarine, went to Petrotrin’s defence early -on the official spill containment effort. From all accounts, the minister took his cue from company officials. On December 24, at a post-Cabinet news conference, he repeated the Gillette version of sabotage at Rancho Quemado.
“The valves that were opened could only have been opened using a specialised type of wrench,” he said.
Engineering experts, however, say any old wrench could have done the dastardly act. Hassanali told the Sunday Express he agreed that a large wrench could do the job. He did not say why he did not correct the erroneous information put out his chairman and the Minister of Energy.
What the Minister Knew on December 17
Ramnarine also said that there were no leads to the, by then, other reported oil spills. He is yet to tell the country what he knew on December 17 about the spill and whether he knew about the ruptured No10 sea line which Petrotrin treated as a state secret or the fact that the company had over 7,000 barrels of oil unaccounted-for somewhere in the Gulf of Paria.
The minister has also failed to say why it took him six days to recognize the extent of the problem and make the call to initiate the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) Tier 3 response. There is no explanation from Government, State or company officials about why Petrotrin did not reach out to anyone in the upstream and downstream sectors for help given the fact that BP had just cleaned up the largest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and that all of the multinational corporations doing business in Trinidad have substantial spill containment assets.
Internal company documents obtained by the Sunday Express show that the oil giant hid the truth as it went into damage containment mode. It not only failed to make any calls for help when it discovered it had a problem at 6 a.m. on December 17, it bungled its spill-containment response and misread its own trajectory modelling projections for directional ocean flow in the event of an oil spill.
It took an hour after the first oil sighting by fishermen and Petrotrin port security for the company to initiate its emergency response procedure. Petrotrin logs show that the company had full knowledge before daybreak on December 17 that No10 had broken its line and spilled over 7,000 barrels of oil into the sea.
The company followed the emergency manual, isolating the line which had missed two crucial inspections, and used sorbent booms and company vessels to break up and contain the spill site. The findings of an internal investigation by process engineer Mervyn Cummings detailed the following response timeline:
• 10.05 a.m. -Oil sheen was observed at No.2 south berth and was flowing in a south westerly direction. The port security vessel, Stingray, did not observe oil sheen in the vicinity of the San Fernando Yacht Club
• 10.50 a.m. - Petrotrin HSE (Health, Safety and Environment) personnel were on site
• Between 10 and 11 a.m. tugs were used to emulsify oil spilled in the area
• 11 a.m. - permission was given to spray the dispersant on the spilled area. Preparation to initiate oil spill dispersant commenced
• 11.20 a.m. - an aerial survey was conducted at Claxton Bay, San Fernando, Mosquito Creek, La Brea and Point Lisas. The following was observed: 1. No sheen was observed between the areas of Claxton Bay to La Brea. The shoreline was also free from oil. 2. In the vicinity of La Brea, there was a long, narrow strip of oil with dimensions of approximately 110 feet in width x 1,200 feet in length. It appeared that this patch of oil was trapped within the water column hence under the surface of the water. 3. In the vicinity of No.1 berth, the spill was observed to be 3,960 ft in width and 1,640 ft in length. 4. Oil sheen and black oil were observed from the Lube Oil Jetty heading towards the No.10 sea line on the Main Viaduct
• 11.25 a.m. - The launch, Gull and barge T6 arrived at Pile Bent 122 with a skimmer on board. Marine Services and Marine Maintenance Personnel were on board barge T6 to provide assistance with the skimmer. There was also one 800-gallon tank, two 400 gallon tanks, one generator and one hydraulic pump
• 11.40 a.m. - a slop oil barge was used to contain the spill in the vicinity of Pile Bent 122
• 11.50 a.m. - dispersant was sprayed in areas within the one mile limit
• 12.07 p.m. - skimming operations began at Pile Bent 122
• 1 p.m. - all tanks aboard barge T6 were filled with fuel oil (approx 1,600 gallons) or 38 barrels
• 1.30 p.m. - barge T6 left for shore together with launch, Gull
• 1.45 p.m. - barge T6 arrived at shore for the removal of the skimmed fuel oil via vacuum truck
• 3 p.m. - No.10 expansion joint was removed completely
• 4 p.m. - blind flange installed on the eastern end of No 10 sea line completed
• 4.15 p.m. - skimming operations resumed at Pile Bent 122
• 5.25 p.m. - a blind flange was installed on the western end of No 10 sea line
• 5.35 p.m. - 2,500 gallons (60 barrels) of oil skimmed
• 6.15 p.m. - skimming operations suspended
Twelve hours after the spill with only 60 barrels of oil recovered, Petrotrin called it a day. The Sunday Express asked Petrotrin’s top executives why the company suspended its clean up operations at 6.15 p.m. with so many thousands of barrels of oil still unaccounted for.
Hassanali, in an e-mail response, answered the question this way: “As each of the different incidents was discovered, the company’s emergency response plans were put into action. The findings of aerial and marine surveillance of the area in the vicinity of the spill at Pointe-a-Pierre and the results of our spill trajectory model would have informed the decision to suspend clean-up operations.”
Oil Spill Trajectory Model
He said the company’s oil spill trajectory model indicated a 95 per cent probability that any fuel that escaped from Pointe-a-Pierre would float to the surface. In the case of the No10 spill, he said several fly-bys and marine surveys all came back negative for oil-slick sightings.
“That is why no nexus was initially established between the incident at Pointe-a-Pierre and the spill at La Brea,” he said. The problem with this explanation, according to two experts, is a feature of the chemical dispersant CoreExit which Petrotrin used to break-up the oil. CoreExit also sinks the oil below the surface of the water, sometimes to the ocean’s floor.
Petrotrin’s own evidence log shows an oil sheen sighting on December 18 around the Oropouche bank north of La Brea which suggests that the oil had already travelled an estimated 11.1 kilometres. The distance between the Pointe-a-Pierre refinery and the La Brea spill site is 27 kilometres.
Petrotrin Oil makes its way to La Brea
Asked to explain the company’s failure to shore off protected coast line along the south western peninsula given the fact that Petrotrin had early information about the volume and location of the spill site, Hassanali said: “Commencing on December 17 and continuing over the days following, our operations were impacted by several incidents. In addition to having to treat with the spill at Pointe-a-Pierre, we were treating with what was then considered to be a different spill at La Brea (no nexus was yet established between the Pointe-a-Pierre and La Brea incidents) as well as other incidents in our Trinmar fields.
Our responses to the specific incidents, placements of booms etc. were guided by the results of our oil spill trajectory models and the situations as they developed on the ground.” Petrotrin’s oil spill trajectory model shows that in the event of a spill, the ocean’s currents would move the oil in a southwesterly direction which is exactly where it ended up.
—To be continued