Peru pledges to make refinery pay for oil spill after Tonga volcano eruption
LIMA, Peru – More than two weeks after a botched delivery from a tanker sent thousands of barrels of crude oil spilling into the sea off Peru, black waves are still clogging the beaches and fingers are still pointing .
Explaining what went wrong seems no closer to an end than the cleanup itself.
The oil spilled over some 27 miles of Pacific coastline, blown northward to beaches along the desert coast of Peru, leaving in its wake countless dead fish and marine animals covered in oil, including endangered sea otters and penguins that live on rocky islands. in two protected marine reserves.
“For the ecosystem to fully recover, we’re talking about 10, maybe 20 years,” said Deyvis Huamán, a biologist with Peru’s national parks system.
The spill happened at the Pampilla refinery, operated by the Spanish company Repsol near the Peruvian capital, Lima. Its scope far exceeded initial expectations, as the company initially only reported a tiny leak of about seven gallons.
It was a factor of tens of thousands. Once the true scale of the disaster became known, Peru’s president stood on an oil-stained beach and denounced what he called “one of the greatest ecocides on our coast”.
The question now is: who is responsible?
Repsol says the January 15 spill was caused by a strong ocean swell triggered by an unusually powerful volcano that erupted thousands of miles away off the island nation of Tonga. It says the event damaged an underwater pipe and pipe system from which moored tankers pump crude into its refinery, and notes that while neighboring countries have issued a tsunami warning, Peru will not. did not.
“We did not cause the ecological disaster,” a company spokeswoman told Peruvian television in the days following the spill.
But this week the government announced it was suspending all Repsol refinery operations, an action the company called “disproportionate and unreasonable”. A district attorney had already begun examining whether the company was properly maintaining its underwater pipe and tube system. And four senior Repsol officials have been legally banned from leaving the country.
“We are going to hold him accountable,” President Pedro Castillo told a rally. “We are going to defend the sea, and we are going to condemn and punish the company that has polluted our sea.”
Still, Peruvian investigators say they will also look into the allegation that the Peruvian Navy failed to fulfill its duty to issue a tsunami warning. The Navy, which has faced criticism from other quarters for not issuing an alert, said it was also carrying out its own investigation.
Even some of the most basic facts are disputed, including the water conditions off the refinery that day.
While the company cited unusual waves, the captain of the Italian tanker delivering Brazilian crude to the refinery said the water was not particularly choppy and the vessel did not collide with any part of the refinery. terminal infrastructure. The head of a local boating association also said the sea was fairly calm, as did navy officials.
The tanker, the Mare Doricum, which belongs to La Fratelli d’Amico Armatori, was seized by the authorities. The company said it was cooperating with Peruvian authorities and noted that no charges have been brought against its crew.
Although the conditions on that day are disputed, there is no doubt that parts of Peru, like other countries far from the volcano, were hit by the tsunami.
To the north, two women were swept away by waves attributed to the eruption. And in Callao Bay, where the refinery is located, waves of about 1.5 meters, or about five feet, were recorded by sea level monitoring stations around the time Repsol reports that the spill happened, said Francisco Hernandez of the Flanders Marine Institute. It may have “shaken” the waters or caused strong undercurrents, he said.
In a statement to The New York Times, Repsol held firm.
“This accident was caused by an unforeseen maritime event to our knowledge,” he said. “The ship’s mooring lines broke following an abnormal swell, as reported by the captain of Mare Doricum. Speculation that the seas were calm clashes with publicly available empirical data from the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, not to mention the hundreds of social media posts that afternoon.
The waves were abnormal. The unexpected is another matter.
Although Peru did not issue a warning, several international tsunami alerts were issued for the region, but neither the navy nor Repsol limited activities.
And although the company went public with the development of its early warning system for oil leaks, Repsol deployed a team of divers to inspect conditions underwater only the next day. The company says conditions were unsafe for divers earlier.
“It’s clear there was a series of big mistakes,” said Gustavo Navarro, a former manager at La Pampilla who is now an energy consultant.
This is not Repsol’s first spill in Peru. A 2013 leak attributed to a corroded pipeline released about 196 barrels. Fines against the company then amounted to less than $200,000, but President Castillo’s leftist government says this time will be different. Government ministers have promised “drastic” sanctions, possibly more than $50 million, in a bid to set an example.
After operations at the refinery were suspended on Monday, the company said it would work with the government to reopen as quickly as possible. He noted that he supplies nearly half of Peru’s fuel and said he would “do his best” to avoid shortages.
The company has also been criticized for its cleanup efforts.
Repsol has offered to hire fishermen and others unemployed by the spill to help, but local media reported the workers are poorly paid and some have passed out breathing in the fumes on the crude-soaked beaches. .
But with the spill taking away their livelihood, at least for now, many have little choice.
The spill hit at the height of the summer beach season, and working-class coastal communities that rely on fishing and tourism have been hardest hit after a prolonged pandemic-related downturn.
“The restaurants, the cevicherías, nobody eats there anymore,” said Roberto Zamora, 45, a fisherman in the Ventanilla neighborhood where the refinery is located. “Nobody wants to buy fish, even deep-sea fish.”
Peruvian tourism officials estimate losses at some $52 million, a figure that does not include the impact on fishermen.
Mr Zamora said he had not worked a single day since the spill first washed ‘black lava’ onto local fishing grounds, robbing him not only of his income but also of his life. main source of protein for his family.
He wants an explanation of what happened, a serious plan for redress and compensation – and something even more important.
“What we want is respect,” Mr. Zamora said. “And that has been a lack of respect for our ocean. It didn’t just affect me. It didn’t just affect other anglers. It is an offense to the whole world.
“They poisoned the sea,” he said.
Raphael Minder and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.