EDITORIAL: All quiet over Onego Traveller recovery operation

SINCE the cargo ship the Onego Traveller sank in waters off Abaco on December 29, there has been a curious absence of information from the government about salvage and remediation efforts.

At last report from the Ministry of Transport and Housing, on January 11, the vessel still has 3,119 tons of steel coils and 4,505 tons of ferix on board, along with an unspecified amount of heavy fuel.

Thankfully, we are told that the fuel is not leaking, but the Ferix has been seen to be leaving trails of substance drifting away from the vessel.

When oil spilled in Exuma, it was all hands on deck with Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper leading the charge. With this sinking, not so much. The Environment Minister has been quiet. There have been few updates. The most we have heard from the local MP, John Pinder, is a criticism of people who said that oil was leaking from the vessel.

On January 3, he said: “The slick on top of the water is residue from the dissolving shipment that they were carrying, which is ferix, which is non-toxic, it is more like a corrosive.”

We are not sure how comforted we should be that it is just a corrosive that is leaking out of the vessel.

Indeed, the Bahamas National Trust was also concerned about that, saying: “The primary concern around the ferix is how it will affect water quality in the short and long term. It is currently affecting the pH of the water surrounding the sunken vessel, creating highly acidic conditions. If the ferix acts as a fertiliser in the seawater, this could also lead to harmful algal blooms which negatively impact marine life and have health impacts on people exposed in and around the water. The scale and extent of such impacts will depend on the amount of the chemical ultimately released into the environment and other nutrient levels in the seawater.”

Mr Pinder also said at the time: “There are ships out there that are doing the containment. And they will be extracting the fuels off of the boat from fuel tanks, but they were capped off in time not to have an oil spill.”

A clean-up team called Resolve Marine is reportedly involved to tackle the matter.

On January 11, the ministry said: “Divers continue to inspect the sunken vessel. The booms remain in place and continue to hold. Efforts to remove the fuel are continuing. The public is advised to stay away from the area.”

The ministry also pledged to share additional information as it became available – but there has been a shortage of information to share, it would seem.

FNM leader Michael Pintard spoke out on the issue, also referring to the oil spill in Exuma last year, saying that the government has failed to act on environmental laws to punish polluters. He said that the laws provide for fines of up to $30m in each incident – so if we do nothing it could cost us $60m as a nation.

This brought a churlish ticking-off from Attorney General Ryan Pinder, who suggested it was reckless to make comments. He said: “The leader of the opposition should be mindful not to make reckless forecasts as to what a judge of the courts of The Bahamas might award. It is not only inappropriate, but would appear to undermine the judicial function of The Bahamas. In this vein, I caution him against any further comments that could prejudice a court action.”

Mr Pinder should know better. Unless a court action has been initiated, there is no substantial risk of serious prejudice to the outcome from comments such as Mr Pintard’s. Indeed, all he is doing is pointing out what the potential fine on the books could be – which should not sway any eventual judge in the slightest.

But aside from fines, there is so much that we have not heard – when salvage vessels will be on the scene, what the plan is with regard to raising the vessel, any timetable for removing the cargo, any involvement from the vessel’s owners, and so on.

There have been positive signs – the BNT welcomed for example the deployment of measures to contain any spillage.

However, it seems strange that there should be such an absence of communication over what was being done to ensure there is no further environmental damage and over plans for how to deal with this large cargo ship sitting underwater, poking just above the sea level.

There does not need to be any mystery over this – over the clean-up and salvage operation or indeed over the state of any investigation and legal moves. So why is there?

A clear timeline for dealing with the aftermath of the sinking is the least we can expect – if everything is going according to plan, let people know.


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