By FREDERICK SMITH, QC
TWELVE metres. That’s how close the coastal communities of Nova Scotia, Canada came to total disaster in 2016, when a mammoth metal pipe, weighing the equivalent of 20 elephants, struck the ocean floor.
The pipe was suspended in the air from an oil drilling ship when it broke loose and came crashing down in a wreck that stretched across an area the size of three football fields. One section made impact less than 40 feet from an undersea oil exploration wellhead.
Had that well been struck, crude oil and other highly toxic materials and gasses would have spewed forth unabated into the sea, severely impacting or even wiping out the nearby commercial fishing grounds that are the cornerstone of Nova Scotia’s local economy.
It is impossible to say just how much oil might have spilled or how long the disaster would have taken to contain. The Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 took 87 days to stop, by which time more than 200 million gallons of oil had spewed forth into the sea, killing sea-life on a massive scale and ruining ecosystems and economies for miles around.
“It’s much too close to a worst-case scenario happening,” Mark Butler, director of the Ecology Action Centre, said of the near miss off Nova Scotia. A preliminary accident report blamed human error and staff inexperience.
Just one year before, the same drilling company, Stena Oil, was convicted and fined in connection with an incident that killed two workers off the coast of Australia. Clearly, Stena has not had the best safety record over the past several years.
And now, the Stena IceMAX, a vessel belonging to the same company – in fact, the very same “worst-case scenario” ship responsible for the near-catastrophic accident off Canada, is bearing down relentlessly upon our pristine waters.
The Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC) says it has all the approvals it needs from Government to drill, but they don’t mention the fact that the IceMAX is not the same vessel that was extensively described in documents submitted to support their application.
In fact, BPC switched the ships a full three months after their plan received the alleged official green light, meaning that the safety procedures, protocols and specialised equipment outlined for the original ship, the West Saturn, owned by SeaDrill which received government approval, could be null and void.
How does the IceMAX, with its dubious safety record, stack up to the West Saturn? We just don’t know. Nor, as far as we can tell, does the government. If BPC has filed an amended Environmental Impact Assessment that accounts for the ship change, they certainly have not made it public.
Meanwhile, BPC boasted to its foreign shareholders that the ship switch and other changes had brought the drilling cost down by 15 per cent. At least someone’s interests are being protected; certainly not that of The Bahamas!
So a massive, unapproved drill ship with a dubious recent safety record, which was chosen by a foreign company with an eye for saving money, is on its way to drill a very risky underwater oil well that could utterly ruin our tourism industry and the 130,000 associated jobs if something goes wrong.
There has been plenty of focus on the very serious environmental and economic risks associated with this project. After all, the Deepwater Horizon was also an exploratory well similar to the one BPC proposes to drill. That spill covered an area of the Gulf of Mexico larger than the entire Bahamas. An even partial repeat here would mean tourism, fishing, diving, all gone in a flash.
But what about the serious worker health and safety issues? As BPC’s target drill date approaches, Minister of Labour Dion Foulkes and the statutory Health and Safety Advisory Council have remained completely silent.
The Health and Safety at Work Act is very clear: Every employer active in The Bahamas has a legal duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their workers. This means ensuring, as far as possible, that working conditions, the handling of dangerous materials and machinery (for example crude oil, toxic drill by-products and offshore drill equipment) can be undertaken with as little risk to workers as possible.
There is also a legal duty to protect non-workers who could be affected, for example the people of West Andros, from any harm. This includes an obligation on the employer to inform all those who may be impacted by the work of “such aspects about the way in which he conducts his undertaking as may affect their health and safety”.
Similar obligations apply to any and all equipment brought in for industrial use, including a requirement to test such equipment to ensure its health and safety credentials. Because BPC’s applications to the government do not mention the IceMAX ship, its equipment or its safety protocols at all, there is no way to tell whether the project will be undertaken lawfully, or in serious breach of the law.
The duty to oversee and enforce all of this falls to the Minister of Labour and the Advisory Council, which can also appoint inspectors. The Act also mandates that every place of employment with more than 20 workers must establish a committee for health and safety to ensure compliance with all of the above.
BPC says it intends to begin drilling in just over a week, yet no such internal committee has been announced and there is no indication that Labour Minister Foulkes or his Advisory Council have taken any steps whatsoever to fulfil their statutory obligations to protect the employees – whether they are foreigners or Bahamian – who will be working on this drill site.
On the subject of foreign workers, the IceMAX can hold up to 220 people. How many are currently aboard and on their way to The Bahamas? How many of the non-crew workers coming to man the drill itself have applied for and been granted a work permit in accordance with the Bahamas Immigration Act? Have they each submitted a valid health certificate, police report, etc, in compliance with the rules?
Has there been any advertisement for their positions through the Ministry of Labour, or any Labour Clearance Certificate issued confirming that no Bahamian can do their job? Did BPC make any effort at all during these extremely difficult economic times to employ as many Bahamians as possible on the rig?
Hundreds of Bahamians with technical experience in Freeport’s industrial sector have lost their jobs at the Grand Bahama Shipyard and many other industrial sites and are eager for work. Why should 200 foreigners be employed without seeing if Bahamians are available first? After all, this has been unshakeable government policy for half a century.
And then, with so many outsiders entering the jurisdiction, what about our COVID-19 testing protocols, mandated under Emergency Orders? Currently half-way across the Atlantic and intending to land in Freeport imminently, how will these workers be able to fulfil the obligation to undergo a RT-PCR test administered by a medical professional, five days before entering The Bahamas? After making their way to the proposed drill site, how will the workers undergo a rapid diagnostic antigen test, administered by a Bahamas Department of Health professional, five days after arrival?
It is important to understand that these workers will not remain isolated on the ship for the 60-day life of the proposed drill. Rather, they will be regularly rotated with replacement teams through Nassau. It is therefore vital that they fulfil the safety protocols mandated by our PM Hubert Minnis, our Competent Authority, to the letter.
Nor is there any indication that precautions are in place to prevent these workers leaving the ship while docked in Freeport, or from moving about New Providence while waiting to be transported to or from the rig. With both Grand Bahama and Nassau finally coming out of their COVID second wave ordeals, we cannot afford to risk a super-spreader event because of the IceMAX and its foreign crew.
Given its track record and the many unknowns, this Worst Case Scenario Ship could well represent a health and safety nightmare for The Bahamas. At the very least, the way this is playing out suggests a shocking abdication of responsibility and failure by our government to enforce the laws of the land, not to mention its own health and safety protocols.
I call upon Minister of Labour Dion Foulkes, Minister of Health Renward Wells and Minister of Immigration Elsworth Johnson to report to the public on the status of their various statutory duties with regard to this ship, the foreign workers it is bringing into the jurisdiction and BPC’s proposed drill project. Unless and until all of the relevant laws are met, the vessel must not be allowed to enter the jurisdiction and should certainly not be allowed to dock at any port or begin work at the proposed drill site.
The laws of The Bahamas are not optional, they are not to be treated as a plaything by either local officials or foreign companies. The Health and Safety at Work Act, the Immigration Act, the Environmental Planning and Protection Act, all bind the Crown. Our government has no choice but to enforce these laws to their fullest extent and cannot simply waive them for anyone’s convenience – including and especially an untried rookie oil company seeking to undertake an extremely risky project with potentially massive negative consequences for all Bahamians.