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Mysterious oil spill sparks national emergency in Trinidad and Tobago

An overturned vessel has caused a huge oil spill along Trinidad and Tobago’s coastline, in what the Caribbean country’s prime minister described as a “national emergency” on Sunday.

The spill occurred on February 7 off the southern shores of the Tobago Island, according to the country’s Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM). About 15 kilometers (9 miles) of the coastline “is now blackened,” the agency said in a statement Saturday.

Photos from the scene show recovery workers wading through thick black sludge, with huge areas of the beach covered in oil. Several government agencies, including at least 1,000 volunteers, have been working to control the spill.

Prime Minister Keith Rowley said in a news conference Sunday that “the situation is not under control.” The origins of the vessel have not yet been identified, he added.

“This is a national emergency and therefore it will have to be funded as an extraordinary expense,” Rowley said, adding, “we don’t know the full scope and scale of what is going to be required.”

Authorities installed booms - floating barriers - to prevent the spill from spreading to other areas, said Farley Augustine, the chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly. Officials have also dispatched divers to try to plug the leak but have not been successful.

“What has to happen is that we have to find a way to now extract every bit of oil that’s in the vessel, bearing in mind as we have been reiterating – not knowing the schematics of the vessel,” Augustine told reporters.

CNN has reached out to the prime minister’s office for comment.

An oil spill in Tobago Island, Trinidad and Tobago, is seen in this handout photo released February 10, 2024 - Office of the Chief Secretary/Reuters
An oil spill in Tobago Island, Trinidad and Tobago, is seen in this handout photo released February 10, 2024 - Office of the Chief Secretary/Reuters
Workers clean up an oil spill on Rockly Bay beach in Scarborough, Trinidad and Tobago, on February 10, 2024. The origin of the ship that caused the spill is not yet known. - Akash Boodan/AP
Workers clean up an oil spill on Rockly Bay beach in Scarborough, Trinidad and Tobago, on February 10, 2024. The origin of the ship that caused the spill is not yet known. - Akash Boodan/AP
The oil spill, pictured on February 10, covered about 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) of the coastline in black residue. - Clement Williams/AFP/Getty Images
The oil spill, pictured on February 10, covered about 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) of the coastline in black residue. - Clement Williams/AFP/Getty Images

“We’re not sure if it’s a freighter, a tanker, or a barge because only the keel of the vessel is visible. And its identifying physical characteristics are in water that we can’t penetrate for the moment,” Rowley said Sunday.

“But we do know it appears to be broken having made contact here and is leaking some kind of hydrocarbon that is fouling the water and the coastline,” he added.

Residents in the local area of Lambeau reported a constant stench from the spill, leaving some worried about their health, according to local media.

Augustine, the chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly, advised those with respiratory illnesses to use masks and “self-relocate or find ways to mitigate against that.”

The spill took place during Carnival season, one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions.

“The best part of Tobago’s economy is its tourism, so it is important that we be cognizant that we don’t expose the tourism product to this kind of thing, and because this has happened, we have to contain it,” the prime minister said.

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