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Lake Maracaibo: an oil development sacrifice zone dying from neglect

  • Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo is a Caribbean estuary that for many years supported a strong commercial fishery. But over the past century the vast briny lake’s underlying oil deposits became a cash cow for the oil-dependent Latin American nation.
  • Today, hundreds of working and abandoned oil wells mar the surface of Lake Maracaibo, and more than 25,000 kilometers of crumbling pipeline crisscross the bottom of the estuary ecosystem. Spills have increased since 2009 when the 76 companies that replaced and repaired the pipelines were taken off the job by the government.
  • According to a report by state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), 15 “minor” spills — leaking about eight barrels of oil every day, nearly 3,000 barrels per year — are flowing from the poorly maintained pipelines into the estuary.
  • Fishermen say that many commercial species have declined or disappeared completely since the Venezuelan economy hit hard times and oil cleanups have largely ceased in Lake Maracaibo — which seems to have become an oil infrastructure sacrifice zone.
Sunrise over Lake Maracaibo., a once productive fishery sacrificed to the oil industry. Photo by The Photographer licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

In July 1914 oil drilling activities were formally initiated in the state of Zulia, in western Venezuela, with the opening of the historic Zumaque I oil well on the east shore of Lake Maracaibo.

The discovery of “black gold” soon converted the rural, poor but picturesque fishing economy into an industrial worksite. An influx of petrodollars brought the arrival of dozens of transnational companies who took over a waterfront once occupied by fishermen, farmers and indigenous people — replacing their villages with tank farms, and oil processing and transport facilities.

Development caused Venezuela’s once moribund economy to boom, as it soared to become the world’s fifth biggest oil producer. But development had another impact: it polluted the brackish bay’s once productive ecosystem, resulting in a steady decline in commercial fishing and the contamination of drinking water — to the detriment of the region’s historic fishing villages.

A century of degradation

Lake Maracaibo is a semi-closed salty bay that feeds into the Gulf of Venezuela, which merges into the Caribbean Sea. The great estuary was once a commercially valuable fishery, but that was a resource Venezuela was ready and willing to sacrifice in order to make Maracaibo one of the most productive oil fields in the world. At its height, more than 450 active wells pumped oil to the lake’s surface, which was regularly crisscrossed by oil tankers, barges and maintenance boats.

Oil-covered rocks line the shore. In the distance, oil wells dot the surface of the estuary. Photo by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres

That international petrochemical investment is now in slow decline, with Venezuela having come on very hard times. The country is currently in economic free fall, suffering 108.7 percent annual inflation, the highest of any nation on earth. That decline has only worsened with the recent collapse in global oil prices.

Today Lake Maracaibo’s surface is still a pincushion of oil wells: more than 15,000 have been drilled into the lagoon’s bottom since 1914 — though many are now inactive and abandoned. More than 25,000 kilometers (15,534 miles) of pipeline — much of it corroded and leaky — runs beneath the more than 13,000 square kilometer (5,019 square mile) bay.

Lake Maracaibo is a poster child for the economic and environmental collapse that consistently has followed in the wake of the global wave of extractive industry boom, bust and abandonment which has impacted rural communities and ecosystems in the industrial age — whether it be in the played out goldmines or fracked out communities of the American West; the shuttered copper, zinc, and lead smelting plants of the Peruvian Andes; the toxic mine waste tailings ponds along the Rio Doces of Brazil; or the oil soaked and degraded rainforests of Ecuador.

A fisherman in a rural village nearby Lagunillas on the east cost of Lake Maracaibo shows an oil stained net, turned black after a single day of use. Photo by María Carlota Marval

Continued pollution in Maracaibo

Alfredo Borges worked his entire life in the transportation and maintenance departments of Venezuela’s state run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A., known as PDVSA. He retired a week before the 2002 work stoppage and general strike launched by the national federation of trade unions which included PDVSA employees and management in a protest against the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Recently, he inspected a retaining wall at Lagunillas, the former site of an indigenous village that had been built on stilts over the water and that was destroyed by an oil spill-caused fire in 1939. Nowadays, the area is occupied by oil wells and platforms, many of them inactive. The rocky shore of the estuary is completely black with oil and the shore and water are covered in plastic waste.

Behind the wall are oil industry facilities that have seen better days. Parking lots are deserted and unmaintained. Buildings are in disrepair, paint flaking away. Oil tanks are deteriorating and covered in rust. Nearby neighborhood schools and social clubs that once thrived as part of the petrochemical boom, are now rundown and surrounded with uncollected trash.

“After the stoppage in 2002, PDVSA only cared about increasing production, and maintenance was completely neglected,” says Borges. As a result of the failed coup d’état against Chávez, the Venezuelan army took over the oil facilities, and hundreds of thousands of employees were fired — many of them emigrated to Colombia. Then in 2009 the 76 contractor companies in charge of oil pipeline maintenance were forced to sell out to PDVSA.

Now the state company openly admits that 15 daily spills occur, amounting to eight barrels of oil every 24 hours — nearly 3,000 barrels annually. According to the Institute for Control and Conservation of Lake Maracaibo (ICLAM), an official body created in 1981, large quantities of sulfates, fluoride, nitrogen, detergent and fecal coliform have also been found in the water.

In 2010, an increase in oil spill incidents and the lack of a cleanup response caused several NGOs to jointly demand that PDVSA and its associated companies assume liability. But no action was taken by the companies or by the government, and major spills have been reported since then.

The decline of the Lake Maracaibo fishery

A 2006 study, “Oil spills in Lake Maracaibo between 1992 and 1928” by University of Zulia researcher Nilda Bermúdez Briñez, documents the historical evolution of complaints against the oil industry by villagers, fishermen and journalists. Their testimonials note the ineffective measures taken by local and federal authorities against increasingly common oil spill incidents.

Alfredo Borges, environmentalist and former PDVSA employee points out oil-blackened rocks at a spot where daily “micro-spills” occur in Lagunillas on Lake Maracaibo. Photo by Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez Torres

As early as 1932, the civil authorities of the municipalities of Cabimas and Lagunilla, on Lake Maracaibo’s east shore, contended that the estuary’s water had become “useless due to the large amounts of oil it contains”, while fishermen claimed that they had lost 60 percent of their capacity due to the rapid deterioration of their nets due to oil.

According to the Studies and Disasters website of the Venezuelan Foundation of Seismology (Funvisis), the most recent major spill took place on 20 May 2015, and affected 40 fishermen — though another spill was reported by other sources in September of that year, this time in the municipality of Maracaibo.

Ana Rincón, the president of Lake Maracaibo’s Association of Fishermen in Cabimas (Asolagomar), looks out over the estuary with puffy, tired-looking eyes, caused by a Zika virus infection. She is disappointed because the government has not ordered any oil removal and clean up since the big spill in May 2015.

In the past, fishermen were paid 4,500 Venezuelan bolivars per week to do the work — collecting the spilled oil in baskets and bags, which were then removed by PDVSA. The clean up money is needed now more than ever: she remembers when local fishermen used to catch up to a metric ton (2,204 pounds) of fish per week, whereas these day their take rarely exceeds 300 kilograms (660 pounds). Some days their catch is under 20 kilograms (44 pounds) — a rough measure of declining water quality.

Lake Maracaibo is an immense brackish bay with only a narrow exit to the Caribbean Sea, so much of the oil that is spilled there stays there. Photo courtesy of NASA

A short distance away, some fishermen immerse their nets in gasoline to clean them of oil. This reduces the lifespan of the gear from several years to a few months, but must be done if the nets are to remain useful at all. Others disembark from their boats and wash their feet and hands stained with oil. One has to wonder how fish harvested from such filthy waters could possibly be fit for consumption, but no one seems to be asking that question.

Dengue fever and chikungunya virus infection, both transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, are common around Lake Maracaibo’s polluted waters, as are respiratory ailments caused by the toxic fumes emanating from lake bottom pipeline leaks. But the big fear here is economic: “Fishermen are going to starve to death,” says their leader bluntly. Previously common commercial fish species such as bocachico, and shrimp, have almost disappeared from the estuary.

Doctor Elíos Ríos, director of environmental health in Zulila, a physician and environmentalist, explains how the oil industry is killing an ecosystem that once stood up to abuse with amazing resilience.

Lake Maracaibo is “a kind of delta [fed by] a hundred rivers looking for the sea; it was nurtured by those rivers. As oil and water don’t mix, the bay can be volatilized [and partially cleansed] by the effect of the sun, evaporating [some portion of the waste oil], while the asphaltic components sink to the bottom.” This same natural cleansing has been occurring for thousands of years, in a process known as “menés,” as oil seeped up from beneath the lakebed, and it is part of Maracaibo’s ecology. That’s why [the lake] doesn’t die completely,” the doctor states. But over the years, industrial oil spills have gradually overwhelmed that natural cleansing ability.

Unresolved oil spills worth millions

In May 1997, the ship Plate Princess, from Malta, spilled 3.2 tons of crude near Los Puertos de Altagracia, on the east shore of the lake, causing a legal halt to fishing for six months — although fishermen there say that fish disappeared from the area for at least five years after the spill, and still haven’t recovered.

Damage litigation against the owner of the vessel and captain of the ship initiated by the Trade Union of Fishermen in the municipality of Miranda, in the state of Zulia, resulted in a legal battle waged in Maracaibo, Caracas and London, and in an as yet unresolved fight to get the highest compensation possible, fixed by an international agreement at 60 million dollars.

Lake Maracaibo is plagued by duckweed infestations, a problem that arose as the estuary’s ecology declined. Photo by The Photographer licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Although the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPC) considers the case closed and expired, in June 2015 a court in the United Kingdom accepted the validity of the Trade Union of Fishermen’s claim. In Los Puertos de Altagracia, the fishermen ponder this ironic state of affairs, saying stoically that: “we won, but we don’t know why we haven’t been paid.”

The long wait for the resolution of international litigation is evidenced by yet another court case: a second major 1997 Lake Maracaibo spill, caused when a Greek vessel, the Nissos Amorgos, spilled 25 thousand barrels of oil in local waters, was not resolved until 2015 when Venezuela obtained compensation.

Meanwhile, in 2014, two oil spills caused by a failing Maracaibo pipeline resulted in the contamination of dozens of homes in the town of Punta de Palmas — oily water flowed out of the faucets into the houses.

Millions of mollusks have died

Héctor Severeyn, an ecology expert from the University of Zulia, looked deeper into one of the 1997 spills and found long-lasting effects on the estuary: 14,000 barrels of oil coated the beaches of Caimare Chico, and covered 48 kilometers (30 miles) of sandy coast, killing more than 7.5 million macroinvertebrates (spineless creatures, such as crayfish, visible without a microscope). The spill resulted in the elimination of 51 species of mollusks, arthropods and annelids that used to inhabit that part of Lake Maracaibo. A total of five million commercial clams — once domestically consumed in Venezuela — were also estimated to have been lost.

His research showed that only 40 percent of the species originally found in the area had returned five years after the spill, and estimated that it would take another ten years to return the waters to previous conditions. Though of course, such a recovery depended on there being no new spills over that time — not likely when underwater pipelines and abandoned wells continue to ooze crude daily.

Lake Maracaibo’s shore is covered in another form of petrochemical waste: plastic. Photo by The Photographer licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

The study concludes that total biodiversity loss from the oil spill cannot be fully quantified, as there is no existing baseline data for many tiny species such as microbenthic invertebrates (species less than 0.1 milimeter in length), meiofauna (barely visible invertebrates), and plankton prior to the oil spills. This lack of in-depth, detailed baseline ecological data for tiny but ecologically important species is typical in major oil spills, such as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, or the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, making accurate restitution difficult to estimate.

Severeyn’s findings match up well with the testimonies of fishermen from Cabimas, Los Puertos and Maracaibo, who claim oil spills — caused either by PDVSA’s badly kept infrastructure or leaking oil tankers — have largely destroyed aquatic life in the estuary.

PDVSA claims that the long-term leakage of crude is the result of “sabotage” to the pipes, though the company offered little evidence for such a claim. While the state run oil company openly admitted to the ongoing daily Lake Maracaibo spills, it also assured journalists and the public that the situation is totally under control.

Experts and the affected communities around Lake Maracaibo note that no serious oil collection effort or bioremediation measures have been undertaken in response to the daily spills. It also seems likely that PDVSA complacency and negligence, compounded by the deepening Venezuelan economic crisis, will be a continuing impediment to the return of Lake Maracaibo to anything like its pre-1914 ecological condition — a time before the Zumaque I well was drilled into the lakebed, a time when fishing was good.