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Country declares national emergency as oil-soaked beaches create hazards in coastal areas: 'We have no idea where it came from'

"This is a priority, and we have to respond."

"This is a priority, and we have to respond."

Photo Credit: iStock

A large oil spill caused by a mystery vessel off the coast of Tobago is being called a national emergency.

What happened?

A submerged craft of unknown origin was found overturned off the southwest coast of Tobago, part of the twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, on Feb. 7. The incident led to a large oil spill, according to the Guardian, which the nation's prime minister Keith Rowley called a "national emergency."

As of Feb. 12, little was known about the vessel, including who it belonged to, where it came from, or how it was overturned.

"We have no idea where it came from and we also don't know all that it contains," Rowley said, per Trinidad and Tobago Newsday. "What we do know is that it appears to be broken and is leaking some kind of hydrocarbon that is fouling the water and the coastline. That vessel could have come to us from any kind of operation, especially if the operation is illicit."

Why is the oil spill in Trinidad and Tobago concerning?

First off, a relationship with the ocean is vital to local culture.

"Oceans are part of what it means to be Trinidadian," Neila Bobb Prescott with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations told UN News. "We have rituals when your baby is born. There's a specific time when you take them to the beach to dip their feet in the saltwater to kind of bring them to the age."

"When you're ailing," Prescott continued, "and there's something wrong with you, you go to the sea for a specific purpose, and then you drink some of the salt water, too, if you have troubles with your stomach. So the sea is part of us in terms of our culture…it's just part of us."

Ocean conservation is also important to this island nation because of its dependence on tourism — roughly 60,000 residents are employed by this industry in Trinidad and Tobago.

The nation's waters are home to sharks, fish, turtles, manatees, sea grasses, coral reefs, and other marine organisms, all of which are at risk from the oil. 

This latest spill is one of many across the globe over the years.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster was the largest oil spill in the history of marine drilling operations and resulted in four million barrels of oil polluting the Gulf of Mexico. The consequences are still being uncovered to this day — most recently, ecologists have discovered that entire portions of Louisiana's coastline have been washed away.

Moreover, the thousands of workers who helped with cleanup efforts are now reporting severe health problems, including cancer, due to exposure to a toxic chemical that BP used to break up large oil slicks. 

Since then, cleaner methods — including the use of human hair to soak up oil — have been utilized to clean up oil-polluted waters. In Venezuela, residents are donating their hair to help clean up Lake Maracaibo, which has been labeled a "polluted wasteland."

What's being done about the oil spill in Trinidad and Tobago?

Rowley said that a number of "friendly countries" with extensive experience in treating oil spills have already offered assistance, but that cleanup and restoration cannot begin until the situation is under control, which means ensuring that the oil does not flow into waters in other parts of the island.

"We are in the containment phase now and this phase will remain as long as the vessel is there and is entrapped with contents that could foul our environment," he said, according to Trinidad and Tobago Newsday.

Rowley also acknowledged that the price of cleanup would likely be costly but that "this is priority and we have to respond," according to the Guardian.

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