Oil spill adds to Dorian-induced woes as Bahamas starts clean-up

Tens of thousands of Bahamians face a daunting clean-up task after Category 5 hurricane batters Caribbean state.

    There were an estimated 1.8 million barrels of crude at Equinor when Dorian hit [Ramon Espinosa/AP]
    There were an estimated 1.8 million barrels of crude at Equinor when Dorian hit [Ramon Espinosa/AP]

    Tens of thousands of people in the Bahamas are trying to clean up after Hurricane Dorian devastated vast tracts of the Caribbean islands and set off an oil spill that has made the task even more difficult. 

    The smell of fuel was everywhere in the small town of High Rock on Wednesday, the ground was covered in a viscous black substance after the oil spill at the Norwegian Equinor facility on Grand Bahama island.

    Dozens of residents have set up tents amid the rubble that was once their homes, where they divide among them the meagre handouts that come their way.

    Although they survived the disaster, they fear that the air they are breathing and the water they are drinking is no longer safe, despite being provided with water filters.

    The oil is "deadly, deadly," said Marco Roberts, 38, holding a mask and lamenting the poisoned state of his island.

    "The oil is actually leaking in the water, and now you can't bathe in the water, or you can't drink the water. The only water we can bathe in is what you all give us," he told AFP.

    According to preliminary estimates, Dorian caused some $7bn in damage, with 70,000 homes destroyed.

    About 2,500 people also remain unaccounted for, according to the archipelago's National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).

    The official death toll stands at 50, and Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said he expects the number to increase significantly.

    Christy Delafield of Mercy Corps told Al Jazeera that it could take time for the authorities to identify all the missing.

    On Wednesday, crews continued to remove debris in the worst-hit areas, moving slowly to avoid disturbing any bodies lying in the ruins.

    As the cleanup began, the first hints of normalcy could be seen in Freeport, a city on Grand Bahama that is run by a private company, without government involvement.

    Lights began to flicker on in some neighbourhoods, and crews were seen repairing transformers in other areas.

    But the small villages that dot the eastern coast of Grand Bahama have barely received any help. Some residents told AP that they had had to hitchhike daily from Freeport to their destroyed homes to sort through their belongings and clean up the debris.

    The prime minister addressed the situation in a televised address late on Wednesday, acknowledging there had been problems in coordination of aid due to the magnitude of the devastation.

    "There are no words sufficient to describe this tragedy," Minnis said. "No Bahamian has ever seen anything like this in their lifetime."

    Has oil leaked into the ocean?

    Back at ground zero of the spill, oil could be seen spread over an as-yet-to-be-defined section of land near the coast.

    The spill occurred at Equinor's South Riding Point terminal, which has a storage capacity of 6.75 million barrels of crude and condensate, it is not clear whether oil reached the ocean.

    Dorian - Bahamas
    The official death toll stands at 50, according to Prime Minister Minnis on Wednesday [Andrew Caballero/AFP]

    "There is currently no observed leakage of oil to the sea from the South Riding Point terminal," Equinor said in a statement.

    However, it said: "Surveillance has identified potential product in open waters 70-80 kilometers north east of the terminal within Long Point Bight close to Little Abaco Island."

    "There are also indications that the product may have impacted a section of the coastline," it said.

    According to Equinor, the South Riding Point tanks were holding 1.8 million barrels when the hurricane hit.

    The company said it had a team working on-site and that two vessels, equipped with onshore oil recovery equipment, had also been sent to help.

    The first arrived on Tuesday while the other is expected on Thursday.

    Possible impact on livelihoods

    Environmental activist Joseph Darville said he had fought for years alongside the Waterkeepers Bahamas NGO against the terminal, which is located along a coast that is dependent on tourism and fishing.

    Darville visited the site and said he was reassured to see small, recently-born fish in the water, which he said was encouraging.

    "This is where most of all of our seafood comes from, from this area, from these magnificent coral reefs," he said, including deep-sea fish, like red snapper, grouper, lobster and bonefish, which alone represent a $7bn industry.

    "This is a sign to us not to be so foolish in the future," he said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies