Grand Bahama News

Ongoing worries over oil cleanup efforts

Environmentalists concerned about pending Equinor sale

Local environmentalists are frustrated over what they see as a lack of transparency surrounding the cleanup at the Equinor site over three years after Hurricane Dorian caused a major oil spill at the South Riding Point facility.

This is the main reason why those environmentalists are calling on the government to block the sale of oil terminal. 

In a brief statement last week, Equinor announced that it has entered an agreement with Liwathon, an Estonian logistics and investment company, for the sale of the terminal and that the sale had received the approval of the Bahamian government.

The announcement triggered an outcry from Waterkeepers Bahamas, EARTHCARE, Bahamas National Trust (BNT) and Save The Bays, which said Grand Bahamians need to know the site is clean before the sale is finalized.

“We were told that this group was very certain about not purchasing until the cleanup was done, so this is surprising news,” Executive Director of Waterkeepers Rashema Ingraham told Grand Bahama News.

In 2019, Hurricane Dorian blew the tops off three tanks at the site, causing a spill of an estimated 119,000 barrels of oil over acres of pine forest northeast of the terminal.

Equinor began a cleanup and remediation effort with an anticipated completion date of 2024. 

Ingraham recalled that after meetings with Equinor executives in the initial stages of the cleanup, in addition to the hiring of local and international teams, a promise was also made to involve students from University of The Bahamas.

That did not happen, but Waterkeepers, along with Save The Bays, other environmentalists and biologists, continued to regularly assess the contaminated forest area.

“After the storm, we did several site assessments of the area, one that also included us being able to take samples of the area surrounding Equinor where the spill was as well as control areas where there was no spill.

“We sent those samples on to the consultant [who] we hired, who has very extensive background in oil spills in the US and who sat on the oil spill contingency committee for many years, Dr. Rogers, who did a report that concluded that in some areas, there was still a very high concentration of oil.”

Dr. William Rogers, of Texas A&M University, who has more than 30 years’ experience in virtually all aspects of environmental planning, restoration and protection, was asked to review the site assessments and offer recommendations and solutions, which were sent to Equinor, local NGOs and the government’s National Oil Spill Contingency Advisory Committee (NOSCAC).  

The committee was appointed by the government to monitor the oil spill at the South Riding Point facility and consisted of a cross-section of industry stakeholders.

“There were several solutions presented by Dr. Rogers, including suggestions about what went wrong, what needed to be improved and implemented,” said Ingraham.

“We have yet to receive a response or report from the government or the NOSCAC.”

Ingraham said environmental groups want assurances from the government that the site is clean before a new owner takes control.

“We need someone from the government to be more transparent about what’s happening, so that we know that some of the information that we put out there in order to assist or highlight the issue is being paid attention to,” she said.

Ingraham stressed the importance of the assurances to Grand Bahamians.

“No one is providing updates to a very small and vulnerable community that is already dealing with any type of mental issues because of what they saw in Dorian, and now having to deal with a new buyer who is unknown to them while they are not certain what the old owner did,” she said.

Ingraham explained the lack of progress reports has been frustrating for those trying to keep the focus on the cleanup effort.

“We were going every two weeks doing site assessments,” she said.

“We met with Equinor several times where they gave us status updates on their cleanup efforts. That happened quite often in the beginning, then as we continued to do those site assessments, it began to slow down.

“Now, we may go once a month, which is still not enough. I mean, it’s depressing to keep going out there and keep seeing the same thing over and over.”

Earthcare founder Gail Woon also maintained that the oil cleanup is not complete.

“I was working as an environmental consultant for an environmental company that was doing an impact assessment at Equinor,” said Woon.

“Certainly, with the nature of our limestone substrate, any oil that is poured on to the ground will affect the fresh water table.

“Yes, I agree with Waterkeepers Bahamas and Save The Bays that there is still cause for concern regarding the damage done by the oil spill caused by … Hurricane Dorian.”

Woon also believes that Equinor should not be allowed to sell before compensating the Grand Bahamians whose land was impacted by the spill.

“The land can no longer be farmed,” she said. “The limestone can no longer be harvested for market.”

Ingraham said Waterkeepers is also concerned about the state of the waste storage ponds and the facility itself, since a recent video circulated showing what Equinor described as one of the storage ponds covered with a slick of oil.

“If there’s a spill, you can extract the oil and use it again and process the remaining product, refine it again or use it for other purposes,” she said.

“It’s not anything to throw away. It can be processed, but to leave it there, in the wells, where there is seepage somehow, for such a long period of time, and knowing that the facility is old and compromised, is a concern.”

In a statement following the surfacing of the video, Department of Environmental Health Services Public Analyst Anthony Ryan said two of three wells on Equinor’s property were mediated.

“The timeline for remediation of the third well is the first quarter of 2024,” said Ryan in response to questions from Grand Bahama News.

Asked about possible seepage in the wells, Ryan said, “When we have extracted a lot of product from Pond 3 and it’s clean, then we’ll have a better indication of whether it was lined. We don’t know that because product was always in there.”

The Equinor statement about the sale to Liwathon read, “Liwathon will now take over ownership and commence a process to restart regular operations of the South Riding Point terminal.”

Grand Bahama News had no success in getting any further information from Equinor on the state of its cleanup efforts.

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