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PERU: ‘Don’t Minimise’ Impacts of Amazon Oil Spill

Milagros Salazar

LIMA , Jul 1 2010 (IPS) - Pluspetrol’s Jun. 19 petroleum spill has left the Marañón River, in the Peruvian Amazon, with oil and grease levels thousands of times greater than the maximum allowed for human consumption, affecting more than 4,000 local residents.

A boy holds up oil sludge from the Marañón River in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Federación de Comunidades Nativas del Río Corrientes

A boy holds up oil sludge from the Marañón River in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Federación de Comunidades Nativas del Río Corrientes

“The oil slick covered the entire width of the Marañón River, with devastating effects for flora and fauna. Fish and aquatic plants have been destroyed,” states the report by chemical engineer Víctor Sotero, of the government’s Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP), connected to the Ministry of Environment.

IPS obtained access to the report and to the laboratory test results of the spill that occurred Jun. 19 in the northeastern region of Loreto, when the hull of a barge transporting crude oil ruptured, releasing about 400 barrels (159 litres per barrel) of the oil into the river.

The shipment came from Lot 8, under a contract held by the Pluspetrol Norte company, an affiliate of the Argentina-based Pluspetrol corporation.

Analysis of six water samples collected between Jun. 20 and 22 in the affected area revealed grease and oil levels ranging between 10,800 and 2,613,000 milligrams per litre (mg/l).


The results are alarming, considering that the maximum admissible for human consumption of oil-tainted water is 1.0 mg/l, or one part per million, according to Peruvian law.

“With that degree of contamination, those waters cannot be utilised by the local populations until new tests are conducted over the course of the next few months and the presence of these substances falls to zero,” Sotero told IPS.

The spill affects 28 river communities on the Marañón — more than 4,000 people –, according to Peru’s ombudsman office, Defensoría del Pueblo. Among them are the indigenous Cocama and Achuar peoples.

“Our brothers are demanding clean water and food. They used to take water from this river and eat its fish, which have gone because of the spill,” said Edwin Vásquez, president of the Indigenous Organisation of the East. He said the water and supplies that Pluspetrol and the Loreto government have distributed are not enough.

The analysis made by the IIAP’s Bioactive Substances Laboratory shows that the first riverwater sample, taken Jun. 20 in the community of Santa Rita de Castilla, the day after the incident, had the highest concentration of oils: 2,613,000 mg/l. “It was practically all petroleum,” said Sotero.

The Jun. 21 sample was 32,900 mg/l grease and oil. Members of the community collected those first two samples, because it took Sotero two days to reach the site, on Jun. 22, when he took four additional samples from different sites.

In the community of Saramuro, located in the spill’s “ground zero” area, samples showed as much as 11,000 mg/l, and 100 metres upriver it reached 11,300 mg/l.

The two other sites that Sotero inspected, 500 metres downriver from ground zero, registered 10,900 mg/l and 10,800 mg/l. The latter was taken at Santa Rita de Castilla.

The chemical engineer also tested the water’s pH, or the degree of acidity, and found “very little increase if compared with the maximum limit allowed. The high degree of contamination is from the oils and greases,” said Sotero.

The crude oil accumulated principally in the inlets and along the banks of the Marañón, a tributary of the Amazon, said the IIAP expert, who also noted that the oil company does not have “a contingency plan for the river population when a disaster like this occurs.”

In a statement, Pluspetrol said it does indeed have such a plan. But Sotero insisted that the company had never shown it to him.

He stated in his report that the local population only found out about the accident on Saturday night, Jun. 19, though the spill had happened at about 3:00 in the afternoon, which meant they had consumed contaminated water for several hours.

The Loreto regional director for energy and mines, Roy Meza, told IPS that medical teams had been sent to the communities and that two people had been found to have stomach problems, but it hadn’t been confirmed that they were the result of consuming toxic agents.

On Jun. 30, the oil company reported that it had completed the oil recovery and clean-up operations.

In his report, Sotero recommends “monthly monitoring over the course of the year, and annually after 2010, of water, sediments, hydrobiological species and blood of the population affected, in order to assess the scope of the contamination.”

The Regional Health Directorate is also analysing water samples from the area, but has yet to publish its results.

According to Energy and Mines Minister Pedro Sánchez, the quantity of oil spilled is very small in comparison to the disaster off the U.S. coast in the Gulf of Mexico, where an oil-drilling platform of the transnational British Petroleum collapsed.

Indigenous leader Vásquez took issue with making such a comparison, and asked the government “not to minimise the incident” and to investigate it rigorously “so that those responsible can be sanctioned.”

The indigenous communities in Peru have become painfully aware of the potential harm from intense petroleum and mining activities.

Two rivers were contaminated when the Caudalosa mining company’s reservoir of toxic waste collapsed in Huancavelica, the country’s poorest region, located in the southern Andes.

That incident took place on Jun. 25 and, according to representatives of the Huachocolpa community, some 21,000 cubic metres of mining waste were spilled.

Environment Minister Antonio Brack has assured there will be penalties for the responsible parties in both cases.

However, the petroleum and mining companies usually challenge any sanctions the government imposes.

According to a report from the Peruvian investigative journalism project IDL- Reporteros, just 22 percent of the fines imposed for serious incidents of contamination or for serious safety violations from 2007 to April 2010 were collected.

The sum of the fines imposed in that period but not collected by the Peruvian government surpasses 13 million dollars.

Iván Lanegra, an ombudsman official with the Defensoría del Pueblo, told IPS he believes there should be a coordinated effort amongst the government agencies to investigate what happened and provide for the urgent needs of the people affected.

 
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