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Tobago oil spill blackens beaches, but mystery apparently cleared up

Tobago oil spill blackens beaches, but mystery apparently cleared up

PORT OF SPAIN — The mystery vessel was reported overturned last week just off the coast of Tobago, the northern island of the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. No crew were spotted — just a dark, sticky fluid leaking from the vessel.

That material is now blackening beaches, a key draw for the country’s important tourism sector.

On Wednesday, the government appeared to have cleared up some of the mystery. The vessel, reported on Feb. 7, was an overturned barge that was being pulled by the tugboat Solo Creed from Panama in Central America to Guyana in South America, The Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security said. Guyanese authorities confirmed that the excursion never reached Guyana, the ministry said.

The oil was initially spotted around four miles north of the barge near the Tobagonian town of Scarborough. More recent satellite imagery from the Tobago Emergency Management Agency shows contamination much farther out — about 48 miles west of the island.

As round-the-clock cleanup efforts continued, it was still unclear how much oil had spilled and how much remained in the largely submerged barge. What caused it to overturn are not yet known.

Its appearance inspired investigation and speculation about its identity and provenance. Users on the sites of the Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, an environmental nonprofit based in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and suggested it might be the Gulfstream, a 561-foot oil products tanker built by South Korea’s Hanjin Heavy Industries in 1975.

But “Gulfstream” has been used for many vessels, at least one of which has been broken up, and others users disputed the identification.

Divers approached the vessel, but it had been moving and bobbing in the shallows, clouding the water and stymying close inspection.

Trinidad and Tobago has long experience with spills. The nation is the largest oil producer in the Caribbean; according to the World Bank, its petroleum and petrochemicals industry generates more than a third of its gross domestic product.

Prime Minister Keith Rowley has declared a national emergency. Workers were deploying booms to contain the spill, cleaning beaches and protecting wildlife, he told reporters on Sunday.

Heavy equipment was shipped from the larger island of Trinidad to help.

Rowley said it was fortunate that the vessel overturned in a sparsely populated area. If it had been farther north or west, the spill could have rounded the tip of Tobago at Crown Point and contaminated the island’s west coast, home to several resorts and tourist attractions.

By LARIS KARKLIS/Washington Post

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