Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Bahamas mobilizes a team of regional and international experts to assist in oil spill disaster preparedness exercise

International experts to aid Bahamas in oil spill exercise
Tribune Staff Reporter

THE Bahamas is mobilising a team of regional and international experts to assist in the oil spill disaster preparedness exercise currently under way.

Acknowledging the weaknesses in local capacity, Minister of Environment Earl Deveaux said the government contacted the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and other international partners to formally request assistance.

"The Bahamas is not prepared for the level of calamity. We are mobilising to address it," said Minister Deveaux.

If the oil currently leaking from the BP Deep Horizon platform enters the exclusive economic zone of the Bahamas, which sits about 120 miles south of Key West, Florida, it could be "disastrous" for the Bahamas, and the many people who depend on fishing for their livelihood, said Minister Deveaux.

The government is prepared to cede some judgments to the team of experts, while maintaining its sovereignty. These decisions would include the type of chemical disspersants to be used in the event they are needed.

Chemical disspersants have proven to be controversial, because the manner and the quantity in which they are being used in the gulf are unprecedented. Standards vary across the world as to what chemicals are most safe and most effective.

"We don't have the resources and means to make an independent determination," said Minister Deveaux, who admitted the long-term environmental impact of the chemicals is unknown.

Philip Weech, director of the Bahamas Environment Science and Technology (BEST) Commission, said the use of chemicals, while potentially harmful, was necessary for the immediate containment exercise.

He said it was important to "shorten the resident time of oil in the environment", and the chemicals helped to thin out the oil, enabling it to be evaporated, and prevent clumping.

Based on the potential use of chemicals, he anticipated testing in the marine environment would persist long after the immediate aftermath of the disaster to assess the long term impact.

No definitive models exists to determine if or when oil will enter Bahamian territory, and if it does, what form the oil will take. Scientists predict based on ocean currents, the north-western Bahamas is at risk, including some areas being considered for protected marine habitat designation.

Three American scientists were named by the local organising body, the National Oil Spill Contingency Team, to spearhead the planned Friday exercise of collecting water, tissue and sediment samples on the Cay Sal Bank.

Marine biologist Kathleen Sealey, from the University of Miami, botanist Dr Ethan Freid and independent biologist and Bahamian seabird ecologist Will Mackin will travel to the Cay Sal Bank to collect samples.

Tissue samples from the livers of fish will be of particular interest to the researchers, according to Eric Carey, director of the Bahamas National Trust. He said researchers would also test seabirds who nest in Cay Sal, because some of them travel a long distance to feed in areas immediately affected by the oil spill.

Initial samples will provide baseline data for future analysis. Although the government is yet to sign off on a laboratory, tests will be conducted in a lab certified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They will also be stored based on strict EPA guidelines.

Minister Deveaux said he understands the oil is "sticky and messy". Some environmentalists have described it as "thin". They maintain it is difficult to predict the state on arrival in the Bahamas, but scenarios include oil arriving on the surface, as tar balls, or underwater plums or clouds.

Scientists determined the tar balls discovered on the Florida coast by the US Coast Guard earlier this week were not from the BP oil spill.

In the event of oil reaching land in the Bahamas, the government plans to call on volunteers to make themselves available to assist, including individuals from the scientific community. Volunteers with boats are asked to be on stand by to assist with laying booms, which are partially submerged floating devices used to trap surface oil.

"We want to ensure we have on call and available resources to mobalise in the event the worse case scenario arises," said Minister Deveaux.

May 20, 2010