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Letter of the Day: Firewater demisticised: the Windsor Spring and the quest for oil in Jamaica
published: Sunday | October 7, 2007

The Editor, Sir:

The Sunday Gleaner magazine, Outlook, on September 30, 2007, ran an article entitled 'Mystical Firewater'. This refers to a natural spring at Windsor, St. Ann, with 'sulphur-filled waters' that have 'floating flames' when ignited. The spring, however, has a longer history, more than 150 years, and a greater significance than reported - it inspired and still inspires Jamaica's quest for oil and gas.

The spring was first recorded in the Reports on the Geology of Jamaica in 1869 by James G. Sawkins - it appears in the report on St. Ann, dated 1865 - but presumably, Sawkins learned of its existence from locals. Sawkins (p. 203) described it as follows: "In the bed of the St. Ann's Great River, near Windsor, there is a strong saline spring; also in one of the small streams to the east. Good salt may be made from either by evaporation."

The spring was also reported in The Mineral Springs of Jamaica by J.C. Phillipo (published in 1881) who promoted its medicinal properties; specifically that it was "useful in strumous and glandular disorders".

gas bubbles

The presence of gas bubbles was first reported by the then Government geologist C.A. Matley in 1924, which was published as a supplement to the Jamaica Gazette. Matley visited the spring in the company of the then land owner, a Mr. F.E. Dixon, and described it in the following way: "The spring lies on the flat alluvial terrace of St. Ann's Great River, about one chain (66ft or 20m) from the river bank and several feet above the usual river level. At that time the spring was a small, shallow, muddy, almost stagnant pool, some two or three feet in diameter, of strongly saline water from which arose a few bubbles of an odourless gas." Matley asked Mr. Dixon to clean the spring out, and on his next visit the spring was "flowing steadily and giving off bubbles of gas in considerable but variable quantity". The gas was inflammable and Matley suspected it to be methane which was confirmed by analysis (98.34 per cent methane, with traces of other hydrocarbons, and 1.66 per cent carbon dioxide).

Matley's title to his paper is of note 'Report on a Mineral Spring at Windsor, St. Ann, and on the Probability of the Occurrence of Petroleum in its Neighbourhood'. In Matley's time, the spring was located 20m from the river, but is now situated on the river's banks. This will come as little surprise to the locals who have seen the river's channel move, particularly with the passage of hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Emily.

water's unusual composition

The spring water has an unusual composition. Hilary A. Hylton (The Mineral Springs of Jamaica, Geological Survey Division Bulletin No. 11) gave various analyses of the water from the spring. It contains high proportions of calcium, sodium and chloride, and virtually no carbonate or sulphur. It is not a 'sulphur spring' but a methane spring, and has quite a different composition to most other springs in Jamaica. One concern, however, is its high strontium content (161 mg/l); it is much higher than the limit of 4mg/l set by the United States Government for drinking water, and, because a small proportion of strontium is radioactive, should not be consumed.

As Matley had anticipated, the spring has had a significant role in Jamaica's search for oil and gas.

In 1955, the first oil exploration well was drilled in Jamaica. Originally, it was planned to drill at Windsor, but access to the site could not be obtained, and the well was sited near Negril instead. It would be a further 27 years until an exploration well was drilled at Windsor. The Windsor well reached a depth of 12,820 ft - the deepest onshore well drilled to date in Jamaica - but no commercial oil was found. The presence of 'other hydrocarbons' along with methane in the gases from Windsor Spring is significant. This indicates that the gas is 'oil associated' and that an active petroleum system is at work beneath the ground. This, together with extensive other data, has fuelled a new round of hydrocarbon exploration in Jamaica, but this time it is concentrated in the Walton Basin, between Jamaica and the Pedro Bank.

considerable history

The Windsor Spring, therefore, has a considerable history in terms of its known existence, its medicinal valve and its potential economical indications. Maybe it's worth a visit. Bath, in its waters, watch the fire dance across its surface, and eat a meal cooked in the only 'kitchen', so far, with a supply of Jamaican natural gas.

I am, etc.,

Simon Mitchell

Professor of Sedimentary Geology

Department of Geography and Geology

University of the West Indies

Mona, Kingston 7, Jamaica

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