Fears of ecological disaster grow over stricken oil tanker in Caribbean

Concerns are growing that an oil tanker carrying millions of gallons of oil could spill its load into the sea between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, causing an ecological catastrophe.

The Venezuelan-flagged Nabarima has lain in the Gulf of Paria since last January when U.S. sanctions on Venezuela made it illegal for companies that operate in the U.S. to trade with the country’s state-owned oil company.

Trinidad and Tobago’s energy and foreign ministers both told to the Miami Herald newspaper that a team would visit vessel on Tuesday. Trinidadian officials were not immediately available for comment.

The Nabarima is carrying 1.3 million barrels of crude oil, according to Venezuelan politicians and green activist groups. With up to 80 million gallons of oil, a spill from the vessel could cause an ecological disaster: In the Exxon Valdex spill of 1989, one of the worst oil spills recorded, 11 million gallons were released covering an area twice the size of Rhode Island.

Venezuela has previously said the vessel is safe, but environment activists and politicians say new pictures show it is tilting at an increased rate.

The Nabarima is seen tilted in the Paria Gulf, between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, on Friday.Fishermen and Friends of the Sea / Reuters

Trinidadian environmental group Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, which represents 50,000 people in the local fishing industry, has called for a national emergency. The group visited the ship by boat on Friday and posted a video showing Nabarima tilting and suspended by anchor chains.

Gary Aboud, the group’s corporate secretary, said in the video: “If something goes on, if we have bad weather, there are a number of circumstances that could causes the vessel to flood, and then we have no recourse.”

The Nabarima is jointly owned by the Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and Eni, the Italian oil giant.

PDVSA could not be immediately reached for comment. NBC News approached Eni for comment.

Lawmakers from the Venezuelan National Assembly, who tend to be critical of President Nicolás Maduro, called on the country’s government to urgently unload oil from Nabarima to avoid a disaster and said the risk had “increased alarmingly.”

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“As a result of the weight and tides the ship is perceived to be more inclined (listing) than what was reported last August,” said María Gabriela Hernández Del Castillo, president of the assembly’s Environment Commission, in a press release.

The U.S. Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago raised its concerns over the vessel in a statement Friday, warning that a spill “could negatively impact not only the Venezuelan people but also those in nearby countries.”

NBC News has approached the Trinidad and Tobago government for comment.

Venezuela has previously denied any problems with Nabarima. In September, the offshore executive director for Venezuela’s state oil company, Pedro Figuera, said on Twitter that the Nabarima “complied with environmental and operational standards.”

He later dismissed reports that the ship was unsafe as “lies” and said it met the required standards “despite the alleged information from pseudo experts on social networks.”

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