ADRA Skilled Volunteers Deployed for Oil Spill Cleanup in Tobago

More than 40 ADRA volunteers helped clean up the coastline days after the catastrophe.

Caribbean Union Conference and Inter-American Division News Staff
ADRA Skilled Volunteers Deployed for Oil Spill Cleanup in Tobago
Adventist Development and Relief Agency volunteers from the Tobago Conference receive a briefing from government officials before embarking on cleanup efforts in response to the oil spill of February 7 in Tobago. [Image: Tobago Conference Media]

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Tobago responded to a call from Tobago Emergency Management (TEMA) to assist cleanup efforts following an oil spill that occurred on February 7 along the Atlantic coastline of that Caribbean island. The call from the government agency came just two days after the disaster.

As reported by the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard, the oil spill occurred after a barge carrying up to 35,000 barrels of fuel oil was wrecked on a reef off the coast of Tobago and started to sink.

According to a Reuters news report, the spill damaged some of the island’s mangroves and threatened its tourism and fishing sector. The spill also entered the Caribbean Sea, threatening nearby Venezuela and Caribbean islands, including Bonaire, which is hundreds of miles away.

After the magnitude and danger of the devastation became clear, the authorities deemed it necessary to engage volunteers and to provide them with the required personal protective equipment.

Vishnu Persad, president of the Tobago Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, visited the coast after the spill and reported that the scene as “horrendous.” “The large area of black oil meant we need lots of help to assist with the cleanup, and it meant having trained professionals to assist and give guidance to our dedicated volunteers during this tragedy,” Persad said. “We are so thankful to the volunteers and church members all across Tobago, and even to persons outside of the island who have responded so quickly to this national tragedy.”

ADRA Tobago director Wilfred Desvignes coordinated ADRA volunteers and collaborated with community leaders and the local government officers to identify and implement an effective response.

“Initially, only [specially trained] individuals were permitted into the devastated area,” Desvignes shared. “Only after the assessment and management of the danger of the situation were volunteers allowed to participate, since those volunteering needed to use protective equipment.”

Forty-three ADRA volunteers worked on the cleaning efforts on February 11 and 18, including Tobago Conference youth director Tracy Dick-Noel. They used hoes, rakes, and shovels to scrape the thick asphalt and make heaps that had to be cleared away by machinery such as backhoes, Adventist leaders reported. Volunteers had to work in four-hour shifts because of the toxic fumes.

Desvignes explained that the affected area, once beautiful with white sand, is now coated with thick black oil along the coastline. “We joined the list of volunteers deployed to aid the clean-up process in this national emergency,” he said. ADRA volunteers assisted in skimming the massive slick found floating on the ocean.

It was an overwhelming task to remove the thick oil in the hopes of restoring the once beautiful coastline of white sandy beaches for which Tobago is famous, country experts said. “The spill will severely impact the island’s beaches, wildlife, marine organisms, tourism, and cause untold financial repercussions,” they explained. “Several beach and golf resorts in Tobago have been forced to place a temporary ban on guest access to once pristine beaches.”

Desvignes said that many volunteers faced the trauma of the experience, since their livelihood and that of their loved ones are threatened. “But working together, we can make a meaningful difference in our nation and our community,” he emphasized. ADRA is assisted by the youth and communication departments of the regional church.

As of mid-March, government officers reported that 97 percent of the spill has been cleared up; only residual effects are seen now on the beaches. More technical work is done offshore by specially equipped boats and personnel, they said.

Annette Lewis, communication director of the Tobago Conference, said that the citizens of Tobago have shown great compassion by supporting the cleanup efforts. “They pulled together as a nation in light of this tragedy,” she said.

Adventist leaders said that it is the first time that ADRA volunteers have assisted in an oil spill. The volunteer team, however, have served previously assisting fire victims and supporting home construction and hamper distribution initiatives. They have also helped send relief items to Grenada, Dominica, and most recently, St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Church members believe that the response of the Adventist Church is a matter of good stewardship as it represents care for the environment. “Dozens of members have been assisting ADRA, which has remained a diligent and resourceful part of the government’s response team,” regional church leaders reported. “ADRA Tobago officials will continue to meet with the local disaster risk management committees to coordinate ongoing relief efforts and estimate recovery time for Tobago’s ecosystems.”

The original version of this story was posted on the Inter-American Division news site.

Caribbean Union Conference and Inter-American Division News Staff