(Trinidad Express) A tangled tale of corruption, deceit and countless lies.
This is the picture that has been painted by high ranking senior officials in the energy industry about the thriving illegal trade of diesel bunkering they say is pickpocketing millions of dollars from the nation.
The vessels suspected in this illicit trade were seized during the State of Emergency last year by law enforcement authorities, but were only the “tip of the iceberg,” a senior official in the Ministry of Energy has said.
The Express emailed Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine questions about the issue but his senior communications officer Nalini Parasram-Rajballie said, “I am informed that these questions should be directed to the Customs Division rather than the Ministry of Energy.”
The seizures of several vessels were noted last year. All were alleged to have been involved in diesel bunkering where boat operators purchased heavily subsidised fuel and sold it at much higher prices outside Trinidad and Tobago.
Ramnarine personally inspected one of the vessels carefully configured for this lucrative trade at Staubles Bay in Chaguaramas last October.
He vowed that the government would strangle this multimillion dollar industry milking the nation’s economy.
Soon after in a post-Cabinet press conference in Port of Spain, he announced administrative measures to police the country’s diesel supply and the vessels involved in the trade.
“We will require all fishing vessels to receive a certificate of compliance from the Ministry of Energy and they are to receive subsided diesel,” he indicated.
Ramnarine warned that those caught in this illegal trade would feel the full weight of the law.
But by late January, the minister’s pronouncements were swept up in the wind, as eight of the nine vessels were released.
Some of the individuals who owned the vessels were given nothing more than a slap-on-the-wrist fine, with any chance of criminal prosecution evaporating.
But, that is not to say there was a lack of evidence to move against several of these boat owners.
An Express investigation uncovered one such case involving the Atlantic Surveyor, one of the vessels seized by Coast Guard officials in October and released two months later, in what high ranking officials described as “dubious circumstances”.
Official documents and pictures obtained by the Express tell a story about a boat that has been allowed to operate on the high seas even though it was officially declared not seaworthy.
The vessel’s operators were charged and fined TT$4,000 last October by Customs and Excise for smuggling but the boat was released in the middle of another investigation by the Ministry of Energy.
Coast Guard officials had also seized the vessel because of its potential for marine pollution.
Glaring violations were discovered by Ministry of Energy officials and International Marine Industrial Inspection Ltd during a thorough inspection and were later photographed and documented.
The Express obtained an extensive dossier on the Atlantic Surveyor in which over 30 violations were recorded.
These included: the absence of an anchor, corroded bollards on the starboard side of the vessel, non-functioning communication equipment and corroded areas on the fuel tank top containing holes.
These tanks, officials say, were used to transport the diesel.
Officials in their report commented about this find, saying, “It’s a disaster and should never be allowed. It is very clear that this vessel was never surveyed by the Maritime Division and its surveyors over the past few years.”
But yet on January 7, 2011, nine months prior to the boat being seized, boat owners Kurt Ramroop and Kearl Alexander had a Drogher’s certificate issued with their names from the Maritime Division with a signature resembling that of a top Maritime official signing on behalf of another.
The certificate officially declares vessels seaworthy and is renewed annually.
But why was this vessel – deemed not seaworthy a mere nine months later- given a certificate?
Michael Annisette, president of the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union(SWWTU), it was impossible for this vessel to have reached such a deplorable state in a short space of time.
“This vessel had no right to be even on the sea. There is no way that vessel could have deteriorated in eight months,” he said.
There is further intrigue in the tale of the Atlantic Surveyor. Following a further wet inspection of the Atlantic Surveyor by government appointed surveyor Courtney Lange on behalf of the Maritime Service Division on December 22 last year, Lange had recommended that the boat be outfitted with an anchor and allowed a single transit passage from Staubles Bay to the Labidco Port in La Brea where full repairs should be carried out.
Prior to this inspection, the Maritime Services Division Marine Inspector had already granted an application for a one move.
This simply meant that once the vessel got to La Brea, it had to stay put.
Late in December the Atlantic Surveyor was sent to La Brea to be dry docked for repairs.
But when the Express visited the area on January 13, the Atlantic Surveyor was seen moored just a quarter mile off the Labidico Port.
The Express contacted the boat owners Ramroop and Alexander that day.
They told the Express via phone that they were carrying out repairs on the ship offshore.
That’s contrary to the instructions ordered by the government-appointed surveyor Lange in an email sent to the then acting permanent secretary of the Ministry of Energy Leroy Mayers; as well as officials at the Maritime Services Division.
The Express attempted to contact Mayers and left messages with his secretary, prior to him stepping down from his position on January 24, the same day the remaining vessels were released. Calls were not returned.
Annisette said there were several troubling questions that authorities needed to answer with regard to the Atlantic Surveyor.
“Why it is the vessel was allowed to leave and what condition was the vessel allowed to leave the port given the fact it was granted a one move,” he stated.
A high ranking official, close to this investigation made another disclosure about the Atlantic Surveyor.
“We have documented evidence of a Customs and Excise C-55 form which details the activities of Atlantic Surveyor vessel transporting subsided fuel to platform alpha and 25 which are in fact fictitious or ghost platforms,” the official said.