Mark Beckford, Staff Reporter
As British Petroleum (BP) grapples with ways to contain an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Jamaican emergency officials say the island's response to such a disaster would be hamstrung by outdated and insufficient equipment.
Oil has swamped the Gulf since April 20 at the rate of 210,000 gallons a day since the explosion of an oil rig. Since then, BP, along with the United States government, has struggled unsuccessfully to cap the spill.
Jamaica, which is located at the intersection of a number of sea lanes where petroleum is transported by oil tankers from the Middle East to the US, and from Central and South America, is at risk of major damage to its marine ecosystem and the welfare of those whose livelihoods depend on it.
Environmentalist Dr Byron Wilson, of the Life Sciences Department at the University of the West Indies, Mona, argued that Jamaica would be incapable of handling a massive oil spill.
"It would be a disaster, an immediate catastrophe. It would kill a lot of wildlife. Jamaica does not have the means to effect a clean-up.
"It (oil spill) would be unimaginable," he told The Gleaner on the weekend.
Ronald Jackson, head of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), said the equipment deficit would hamper a quick and effective response.
"The resources component we have, some are old, some are obsolete and in need of replacement. We have the plan in place, we have been doing training, but we are suffering inadequacies in skimmers, booms, absorbent pads and dispersants," he said.
According to Jackson, the disaster-response plan was last revised in 2004, with another revision due to be started in July or August this year. This review would take four to six months to complete.
The plan, which is available on ODPEM's website, www.odpem.org, speaks to organisation of oil-spill management, national oil-spill prepared-ness, response coordination and recovery policy.
Horace Glaze, senior director of the Preparedness and Emergency Operation Division at ODPEM, said the government agency has dealt with small-scale spills in the past. The last oil spill, according to Glaze, occurred in October 2009 in the Kingston Harbour.
He said that while ODPEM has primary responsibility for clean-up operations, other agencies - such as the National Environment and Planning Agency, the Ministry of Health and the Coastguard - are designated to contribute to the response effort.
Glaze echoed the sentiments of his boss, saying the agency was not properly equipped to tackle a major oil spill.
Glaze said the equipment ODPEM possesses has been in its stockpile for six to seven years. In addition to booms, skimmers and dispersants, he said ODPEM was in need of special boats built to tackle spills.
Glaze also said that if a major spill occurred, regional agencies were on standby. The Regional Marine Pollution and Emergency Information Training Centre and Clean Caribbean and Americas are two organisations which would provide technical and other expertise.
He also said that the organisations have assisted ODPEM by providing training for its staff.
Glaze stressed that oil-marketing companies would have to play their part in assisting in the clean-up and paying the bill. He also told The Gleaner the new disaster plan would involve fisherfolk in the response effort.