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Oil spill could leave Bahamas tourism with “black eye”

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A leading dive operator yesterday warned that the latest Clifton oil spill could leave the Bahamas with “a real black eye” internationally, having potentially cost his business “tens of thousand

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A leading dive operator yesterday warned that the latest Clifton oil spill could leave the Bahamas with “a real black eye” internationally, having potentially cost his business “tens of thousands of dollars” in damages.

Stuart Cove, principal of Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas, told Tribune Business that his business had suffered a “huge” impact, after its boats and facilities were covered in oil.

And he expressed concern that the spill could become “an international incident” that harms the Bahamas’ tourism reputation, after some 300 persons witnessed its effects on his business.

Describing oil spills, and their effects, off southwestern New Providence as a decades-old issue, Mr Cove revealed that “two dozen dive sites” – including the world-renowned ‘James Bond’ wreck – were frequently rendered off limits when the wind came from the east.

This occurred “most of the time”, threatening an industry – and key site – that studies have shown helps to inject millions into the Bahamian economy annually.

Mr Cove also disclosed that this weekend he had to stand at the back of the boat, squirting detergent to break up the oil, to allow divers to go down and scout the seabed for suitable sites for the statues ultimately placed by the Bahamas Reef Environment Education Foundation (BREEF).

“We’ve had a couple of spills that have been very bad,” Mr Cove told Tribune Business. “The spills are horrendous. The last few months, it has got exponentially worse.”

Mr Cove said the situation had started to get worse a year ago, before reaching its nadir last week.

He added that consultants brought in by environmental advocacy group, Save the Bays, had warned that the oil spills presented a “health hazard” via the fumes they gave off.

And he suggested this was already affecting Stuart Cove’s staff, with many suffering “upper respiratory issues”. Mr Cove told this newspaper that he himself was now suffering from asthma attacks.

“This was the second major spill that came into our canal,” he told Tribune Business. “We had 300 people that were scheduled to come in right around turn over time on Saturday.

“A lot of those people had phones, and a lot of people sat and watched it. We’ve been kind of able to keep the lid on this and keep it domestic. But we work on the international scene. If this gets out to the wrong people it will become an international incident, and leave the Bahamas with a real black eye.”

The Stuart’s Cove principal is far from alone. Tribune Business sources said the multi-million dollar Albany development, located just along the coast from his operation, was “very concerned” about the potential negative impact from nearby oil spills that appear to be increasing in size and frequency.

This newspaper understands that while this weekend’s spill did not impact Albany’s marina or canal, the development’s beach had to be closed.

Oil spills, and their effects, do not mix well with high-end communities targeting multi-millionaire residents and the activities they want to engage. Especially when the project is owned by Lyford Cay-based billionaire, Joe Lewis, and his world-famous golfing business partners, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods.

Pericles Maillis, attorney and environmentalist, who also lives in the Clifton area, told Tribune Business yesterday that Albany had deployed its oil boom to mitigate any negative effects on the development.

Agreeing with Mr Cove that the situation had been lucky to escape major international attention to-date, Mr Maillis told Tribune Business: “For the dive industry it’s very painful.

“This has been going on for many years. It’s amazing it hasn’t exploded. It’s been endured by the Clifton Heritage Park and the dive industry.

“It could give us a very bad name. It’s going to get to an international audience now because Stuart Cove had 300 incoming guests come in to get briefed and dressed, and they found a marina full of oil. It will get out.”

Mr Maillis said oil spills in the area dated back to when he was a child, confirming the problem “has happened before many times”.

He added that with prevailing winds usually coming from the east “more than 300 days a year”, all dive sites in the Clifton area were impacted whenever spills and slicks occurred.

“Here we have the beautiful Bahamas, and it’s an ongoing tragedy,” Mr Maillis told Tribune Business. “It’s going to take millions of dollars to have the right response, and that’s what we’re going to have to do.

“Nobody has done the right controls with the right people at the right level to try and get a grip on it. There’s going to have to be extensive evaluation of the tanks, and if they’re leaking they will have to be replaced.”

Mr Maillis said he was glad the issue of oil spills at Clifton was coming “to a head”, having himself brought leaders from successive governments, including Prime Minister Perry Christie, to the area to show them the problems. Yet, despite eliciting promises, no action followed.

“It’s a terrible problem. For a touristic country it’s a major problem,” Mr Maillis told Tribune Business. “If it calls for austerity in other areas, then it needs to be done.”

It remains unclear exactly who is responsible for the latest, and ongoing, oil spills in the Clifton area. The Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC) and three oil majors all have facilities in the area, including fuel storage, but no one has owned up to liability for the recent slicks.

Mr Cove said the consultants brought in by Save the Bays had told him the oil was Bunker C, the type used by BEC. They had also informed him that fish in the area were contaminated, and should not be eaten.

Mr Cove, in a Saturday, October 4 voice mail to Tribune Business, outlined the impact the oil spill had on his operations.

“It’s all over the damn place. Over the boats, our docks, on the walls of the docks. It’s a disaster,” he said.

Interviewed by Tribune Business yesterday, Mr Cove said the stains and marks left behind by the sticky black tar had caused “tens of thousands of dollars in damage to my boats” and other facilities.

He revealed that this was money he could ill-afford to spend with Value-Added Tax (VAT) set to be introduced in less than three months, meaning a clean-up and repairs were necessary.

“If I have to start replacing this equipment, it will cost me tens of thousands of dollars,” Mr Cove told Tribune Business.

“I run a first-class operation here, so we have to make sure all boats are free of tar. I can’t do that [replacement] now because I have VAT coming.”

Mr Cove estimated that about one-third of the oil slick entered his firm’s canal. He disclosed that, once he realised what was happening, two boats were used to block the entrance with engines running to divert the oil elsewhere.

Mr Cove added that he had now obtained an old oil boom, used to prevent run-off into Lake Cunningham during the roads project, to block his canal entrance if future spills occurred.

Turning to the wider impact on New Providence’s dive industry, Mr Cove told Tribune Business: “The whole of the Clifton Pier area, most of the time we can’t dive because of the slick, which covers most of the sites.

“We’re going to be boned. It’s going to be a huge impact. There’s probably two dozen sites we can’t dive on when there’s a prevailing easterly wind, which is most of the time.”

He added that the Clifton Heritage Park, and BREEF’s underwater statues, were also “right in the thick of it”.

“I hate to whine. It’s not poor Stuart Cove. It’s really poor Bahamas,” Mr Cove told Tribune Business. “We’re here to work with the Government to help mitigate this problem.”

He praised Kenred Dorsett, minister of the environment, for the Government’s initial response to the latest oil spill, and was “very encouraged” that efforts to solve the problem once and for all might be starting.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.