Monday, August 23, 2010

Antigua's 366th beach is an ignored government toxic waste dump.

I loved when the barges would pull in to the Texaco jetty back in the early 80s. Antigua was going through a huge tourism boom and when the droughts arrived every other year, our traditional water source came under huge strain as did our electrical source. As kids we would go to these huge water barges that had just arrived from Dominica and would dive off from them into the sparkling blue waters. At the time we couldn't dream what it all meant and it was all just fun. My mom was a tour rep at some of the new hotels. Jolly Beach would frequently run out of water with hundreds of tourists in house trying to figure out how to brush their teeth and rinse off that salty water.
Finally the government at the time managed to get hold of what had been described as a reconditioned desalination plant. This solved the water shortage problem as well as also another problem we had been having with power generation. The plant produced water and electricity at the same time. It was as if we had been taken into a new stage in our island's development. Clean water was now there for everyone.
However, with as many problems that this new plant solved there were as many new problems created. As you would expect, the desalination plant was on the coast and it was going to be the start of a generation of hidden environmental problems. The purpose of this blog post today is to highlight one of these problems which is simply the contamination of our marine environment from the plant's used engine oil and to also show that the old desalination plant isn't the lone contributor Antigua's generational oil spills into the ocean.
Getting rid of toxic waste has never been easy for any country, but Antigua and Barbuda seems to be unique in their approach to toxic waste. I won't speak about all the other dangerous forms of toxic waste that ultimately get into the ocean because i don't have the space or time today on my birthday. Suffice to say, that we are as bad if not worse than most other third world island nations.
OIL - Antigua surprisingly has a Ministry of Environment but seems to have no official environmental policy. The Environment Division has no legislative powers at all and can only ever offer their advice and suggestions to the Minister and other Government offices. They are by design less effective than someone standing on a soap box on market street. Baldwin Spencer and his UPP government have plenty to answer for environmentally. Like many others, I voted them into power originally because of their huge chapter on all the nice environmental things they promised in their winning manifesto. These promises were summed up in their campaign slogan of "What was wrong would be made right", and to this day nearly 8 years later i am still waiting for one single shimmer of a sign that the UPP may be interested in making a single environmental problem change from being wrong to right. Oil is one of the biggest problems in Antigua environmentally. There are no rules or regulations that I know of that deal with waste oil, and as a result most of the islands waste oil ends up in the ocean eventually. Ewart Harny of Harney Motors is the main man behind a fairly new company that processes waste oil into usable fuel which is similar to diesel. This fantastic company is the only recycling program on the island for used engine oil and I am delighted that it exists here. All of the waste oil from my boats goes to that plant and together with the rest of the oil that they collect, it is eventually put back to use in trucks, buses, vans, SUVs, boats and many other diesel using vehicles. All we need now is a series of hard core laws with real punishment for people who discard used oil, incentives for other plants like Mr. Harney's to be set up (read here), an increase in the tax on the imported diesel, a good price control mechanism on fuel oil derived from wast oil, and a very good collection system for waste engine oil. If these things would be encouraged, the island would be so much better off and photos like this would be a thing of the disgusting past.


This kind of slimy black beach isn't what Antigua is famous for at all is it? Yet, this isn't the only one. Within a few miles of Antigua's most prestigious island resort, Jumby Bay, there are several beaches where you can be lubricated not by sunscreen and rum punch, but by cancer causing toxic sludge like you see also here: 






Since the ALP government purchased the desalination plant, the hazardous waste oil together with all the harmful chemicals has been getting into the ground up at Crabbs Peninsula and slowly making it's way into the ocean and I think ultimately into our food. I have also found out that even before the desalination plant was set up at Crabbs there was a power generation plant there for over ten years. As with all fuel burning engines in Antigua, regular maintenance requires oil changes. I assume that the Antigua Public Utilities Authority  (APUA) does similar service on their engines even if it's not a consistent as it should be judging from all the break downs, but historically their used waste engine oil is buried in the ground or just dumped into an open pit. In have heard that in some cases a "reservoir" is dug and plastic sheets are put down before the oil is dumped into these ponds.
In 2005 the infamous R. Alan Stanford purchased some land up at Crabbs to build a marina. These photos show some small test holes that were dug by the architects and contractors.







Shortly after each hole was dug, it slowly started to be filled with oil oozing out of the ground adjacent to it. According to a representative of the architectural firm OBM, "Stanford spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to remove the oil permanently from his site". Stanford didn't want any oil to be sitting below his property and an expert consultant was brought in to study the problem and to make recommendations. OBM says they have the report and have given me several photos from the report. One of the things they did was to dig a huge trench along the property line where it meets the APUA property and put in an impermeable membrane along it to stop further oil from leeching across from the government site. Then the large trenches and holes that now had oil filling them were pumped dry each day until they finally stopped being filled from the surrounding land.

Of course the oil doesn't just seep from the area it has been dumped to lands nearby, but it also seeps or leeches into the water table which is only a few feet below the surface and gets directly into the sea as seen in the top two coastline photos shown above. That oily beach has oil slowly coming out of the ground constantly and will do until the government makes a barrier to the ocean similar to the one Stanford put between his property and theirs. That's the very least the government has to do. Of course they need to stop getting rid of waste oil by dumping it into the ground, and they have to think about getting all of the oil up at Crabbs cleaned up. Stanford did it to his property and there are very good studies available on how to do it again up there. Sadly Crabbs isn't the only place that has waste oil dumping on a large scale.  Andrew Hadeed, one of the people involved in the APC company up at Crabbs, told me once that his company sends all of it's waste oil to Harney's processing plant, but that before Harney started processing waste oil, APC used to deliver their waste oil to The West Indies Oil Company. He tells me that the WIOC buries waste oil at their property just outside St. Johns. This answers the question as to why there is always so much oil getting into McKinnons Pond and why huge amounts of oil gets into the surrounding gutters near the WIOC during times of heavy rain and flooding. Oil floats on water and in a flood the oil escapes the WIOC oil ponds and gets into the McKinnons swamp and eventually into the ocean.
I think the time has come for the Environment Division and the Government to address the waste oil situation island wide and come up with a real policy.
First they have to start with Crabs. As you can see from this old Google Earth image, the oil slick coming off Crabbs is always there and has been there for years and years.
Here is another photo taken in 2008 which shows the constant oil slick:


Next time you take off in a plane and happen to bank to the south look out and you will see it. You can also see it when you are driving up Airport Road approaching "Sealy Bend". Of course you can always see it when you pass Crabbs in a boat. Here is another one I took on the weekend showing the same thin reflective, oil slick coming off of Crabbs right next to the APUA plant.

These days there are two different large scale producers of electricity up at the Crabbs Industrial area using huge heavy machines. APUA which runs both desalination and power production is one and the private APC is the other. As i mentioned earlier, Ewart Harney has a waste oil processing plant situated also up at Crabbs. Last week photos were taken of another type of oil spill coming from the area.
I was told my someone from APC that they had a major problem up at their plant recently which lead to "a quantity of oil" escaping into the cooling waters which flow down a canal into the mangroves there and ultimately into the sea seen here in an image taken from the 365Antigua article





On saturday a few of us went down in a small boat to the area where the oil ended up. Samples were collected and a video was shot together with an array of images. These have not been published, but it proves there was a recent oil spill despite the Coast Guard not being able to find it and various people and media questioning the leak.
I understand now after reading a piece in this Caribarena article that APC is saying that the leak wasn't from them which seems to be quite strange considering the photos which were posted on 365Antigua allegedly showing the spill and then people covering up the trail of oil coming from their plant. Here are some more of these telling photos:
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As you can see, it is probably not unlikely that APC had something to do with this recent spill considering how much effort they went to to cover up their oily drain only hours after the helicopter photos were published and calls from the local media started coming in. I think this may have been a mistake made by one of the managers. That being said, APC did have some sort of malfunction and during normal periods of maintenance they do supply Haney's oil processing plant with their waste oil as i mentioned earlier and don't have a policy of dumping their oil. According to the Daily Observer article that mentioned this specific oil spill, the local Fisheries department was quoted as saying oil spills have nothing to do with them. This is strange since the entire area has been a marine protected area (NEMMA) under the Fisheries Act. Imagine what would have happened if their had been an oil spill within a marina park in the USA. I think we need some changes in our Fisheries department, but everyone knows this about as much as they know that Antigua needs some Environmental legislation changes. Something as simple as an "environmental inspector" up in the Crabbs Industrial area would be a step in the right direction. It's obvious that you can do whatever you want environmentally in this country and get away with it. (I can only think of one company that has ever gotten into minor trouble for an environmental issue.)
Although the oil spill from APC or whoever you want to blame for last weeks spill is terrible and would mean massive fines in a civilized country, the main problem as i see it is the constant, slow, spill or seepage of oil into the sea from Crabbs. Too many people know about this hazardous and long lasting spill and nobody is doing anything about it.
I am not a scientist and didn't do any more chemistry than i had do to in high school, but I am fairly sure that waste oil is extremely toxic especially when it is derived from a heavy fuel burning old desalination plant and or other large scale commercial applications. Without getting extremely technical you can get the general idea about why waste oil is hazardous by reading this link.
This link describes how chemicals which "include PCBs, VOCs, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), petroleum hydrocarbons (PHCs) and lead" ended up in the water table and even in the drinking water because of a similar situation. Check this link.
This one speaks about a chemical that is often found in waste oil especially until the late 80s. In some parts of the Great Lakes: "Locally caught fresh water fish and shellfish are contaminated with PCBs and their consumption is restricted." Click here for more.
I hope that people who read this blog will share it with others and that one day someone who can actually take something that is "wrong" and make it "right" will be inspired to do more than just talk or write.

PS If you want more info on how to purchase recycled or processed oil in the form of diesel oil please call Ewart Harney at Harney Motors. Of course he will tell you how to get rid of your waste oil too.

8 comments:

Mum said...

great piece Eli - a well spent birthday I'd say!

Petra said...

Very informative and a real eye-opener; thank you Eli. What do you think is the most effective way of affecting change in policy within Government - or, as you say, even creating policy?

Martha Bohachevsky said...

THANK YOU, Eli Fuller

Michael said...

Eli,

Superb piece. I have forwarded this through every outlet I have on the web, including Mr. Gregg Hall,a well known and passionate warrior in the fight to clean up the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

This is a critical problem world wide, and these steps you have taken are the most difficult at the beginning, but will grow until there is a point when the power is in the hands of those that will make it better.

Happy Birthday! You make your parents,myself, and everyone that knows you, very proud.

Sincerely,

Michael P. Whelan

shellyC said...

well said, excellently reasearched!

robby breadner said...

hey eli, finally got the chance to read this. excellent (as expected). photos and video coming soon.

David said...

excellent piece eli and happy birthday......a wake up call for all of us small island dwellers to be more vigilant

A Murphy said...

Eli, Thanks for the very informative piece, I just saw your article (now almost two years since originally posted), bumped in to it by accident while searching for information on Antigua shellfish.
This is heart breaking, and so disappointing. The disappointment is exacerbated by the fact that this is so avoidable and manageable, and considering there is a reprocessing facility in such close proximity. What is going on? Is there not a consciousness of the long term impact of this disaster to the primary industry that the entire island depends?
I left Antigua some 40 years ago at age 20. I worked briefly at the Friars Hill and Cassada Gardens power plants, I do remember seeing the waste oil pits at both locations; due to my ignorance and lack of awareness at the time, I never gave it any thought. There is so much more information available today, one would think those in leadership would be much more enlightened and thus take proactive steps to remedy this situation immediately.
A Murphy