SINT MAARTEN (COLE BAY) – The Nature Foundation St. Maarten responded to a major heavy fuel oil spill originating from N.V. G.E.B.E. Power Company in Cay Bay on Tuesday. Upon arrival at the scene, the Foundation found a thick slick of oil extending nearly 4 kilometers toward Simpson Bay and the Caribbean Sea. The Foundation tried to mitigate the spill using the extent of its available absorbent supplies. However, the size of the spill required immediate professional clean-up in order to contain the spill before it washed out to sea, unfortunately professional containment was not available. The Foundation staff and private volunteers used an estimated 1000+ absorbent pads and several booms to combat the spill, only an estimated 1% of it could be cleaned up, the remaining passed to open sea.
“This was a horrible situation and seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals are at risk and could suffer severe consequences from heavy fuel oil floating in the ocean. We are calling on companies and all governmental authorities to take adequate measurements, including emergency equipment and protocols, to prevent this sort of environmental catastrophe from occurring in the future” stated the Nature Foundation.
The Foundation was glad to see that G.E.B.E. hired Aquatic Solutions and set out booms to collect oil around their spill site late Tuesday morning, however the efforts were limited due to the size of the incident. Professional equipment and trained staff are needed in order to respond to incidents of this nature, it is essential to deploy containment methods in an early stage when any type of spill occurs.
“When arriving on the scene, the fuel had travelled already up to 3.5 km, unfortunately it took another approximately two hours before the spill was stopped. All that time the heavy fuel oil leaked into the ocean without anyone able to contain it. An extensive arsenal of equipment and manpower to immediately and effectively contain and clean up oil and fuel spills should be present at companies dealing with oil and fuel” explained Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern Manager of the Nature Foundation.
Contrary to some publications, this was a major spill and there will be long lasting effects on the environment in the Caribbean Sea. Several local dive shops called in the spill after encountering the sludge over popular dive sites towards Simpson Bay. The Foundation responded to the call immediately and was joined by several residents who volunteered their efforts and supplies to assist the Foundation with our clean-up, including those on local boats Champagne, an I.G.Y. dinghy, Osprey, and one small private dinghy. The Foundation is grateful for these brave locals who risked their vessels and equipment to mitigate the effects of this large oil spill.
On Wednesday, the Foundation continued to monitor the situation and found that most of the clumped heavy fuel oil had drifted out to sea far beyond St. Maarten’s territory, while some very small amounts of residue remain. The Foundation was also pleased to continue to see Aquatic Solutions hired by GEBE cleaning up any left residues around the source. The Nature Foundation crew are currently working on a formal report to inform government authorities of the incident and urge them to put oil spill protocols and better equipment into place as soon as possible.
Heavy fuel oil is a thick, toxic, tar-like substance that solidifies rapidly and is difficult, if not impossible, to remove from particular materials. The Nature Foundation urges that any company working with environmentally hazardous materials to have equipment and protocols in place to handle inevitable issues such as oil spills. The Foundation urges G.E.B.E. and other companies dealing with oil and fuel to put together a thorough protocol to respond to such incidents and adequately prepare themselves for immediate emergency responses in the future. The Foundation is appreciative to hear from GEBE that the company will reimburse the costs made during clean-up.
Heavy fuel oil has dire consequences for wildlife and will undoubtedly affect marine life such as sea birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals in the open ocean. Whether it is present in St. Maarten’s shores or not, oil spills are environmentally devastating and can poison and kill wildlife, contaminate food sources, and disrupt biological growth. The Nature Foundation is additionally concerned that the heavy fuel oil, traveling southwest with the winds, will wash up on the shores of other Caribbean islands.