- A new oil spill from the pipeline that carries crude oil from the northern Peruvian Amazon across the Andes Mountains to the Pacific coast has raised fears of yet more pollution.
- The spill is the third major one since January along the 40-year-old pipeline, where more than 20 have occurred in the past five years, according to government figures.
- The state-run oil company Petroperú operates the pipeline.
A new oil spill from the pipeline that carries crude oil from the northern Peruvian Amazon across the Andes Mountains to the Pacific coast has raised fears of yet more pollution of the water and fish on which indigenous villages and riverside communities depend.
The spill is the third major one since January along the 40-year-old pipeline, where more than 20 have occurred in the past five years, according to government figures.
Villagers reported seeing oil on June 24, but as in the other recent spills, the pipe may have been leaking for days before the oil reached the Marañón River, where local residents noticed and reported it.
The state-run oil company Petroperú, which operates the pipeline, and the government’s Environmental Evaluation and Oversight Office (Organismo de Evaluación y Fiscalización Ambiental, OEFA) reported on June 25 that they had teams at the spill site seeking the cause and evaluating damage. Spokesmen said they did not yet have details of the extent of the spill, which reportedly affected the riverside communities of Bagazán and Angamos.
The incident follows two spills earlier this year, near Chiriaco, in Peru’s northern Amazonas region, and in Mayuriaga, a Wampis community near the Morona River. Petroperú estimated each of those spills at about 1,000 barrels.
In those cases, oil slicks floated down the Chiriaco and Morona rivers to the Marañón, one of the two major tributaries of the Amazon in Peru, affecting water supplies and fishing for at least 30 communities. Two spills in 2014 from the same pipeline fouled water and land in the Kukama communities of Cuninico and San Pedro, in the lower Marañón valley.
In February, OEFA ordered Petroperú to suspend operations and repair or replace deteriorated sections of pipeline. Petroperú missed the deadline for submitting its repair plan to OEFA, and the agency took steps to sanction the company.
The agency currently has three spill-related cases open against Petroperú, which could result in fines totaling more than US$25 million.
Officials said the company was inspecting and repairing the pipeline, and one repair resulted in a small spill near Jaen, east of the Chiriaco site. In a press release issued June 25, Petroperú denied that it had resumed pumping, but did not explain how the most recent spill could have occurred if the pipeline was not operating.
OEFA’s power to levy fines in cases of environmental damage was curtailed in 2014 by an economic stimulus decree that reduced or eliminated sanctions as long as the polluter remediated the damage. Repeat offenses, however, can result in stiffer sanctions.
While investigators examine the new spill cleanup is still under way at the Chiriaco and Morona River sites, the experience of Cuninico, some 150 kilometers downstream, gives a glimpse of the uncertain future that awaits the affected communities.
Fears about the safety of fish and lack of safe drinking water, which have plagued Cuninico since the spill in June 2014, were compounded this month by a report showing high levels of mercury and cadmium in villagers’ urine.
Because the source of the metals is unclear, people whose levels were high are not sure how they can avoid further contamination, although health officials warn against drinking river water and eating certain species of fish.
On a rainy morning in early June, the sidewalk that serves as the main street between two rows of wood-frame in Chiriaco was lined with plastics buckets and basins catching the last of the overnight rain dripping from tin or palm-thatch roofs.
Yara Saldaña leaned on the porch railing of her house, where she also sells bread, a business she started when dozens of employees of Petroperú, the state-run oil company that operates the pipeline arrived to oversee cleanup efforts by several hundred local laborers.
Most of the community’s men and some women hired on for the cleanup effort, earning the equivalent of about US$20 a day, a fortune in a place where the daily wage before had averaged barely US$3. Prices rose, houses were repaired, expanded or rebuilt, and small businesses boomed.
But the cleanup ended, and with it, the cash flow. Prices of food and other goods are still higher than they were before the spill, residents say. Work is scarce in the village and the closest cities, Nauta and Yurimaguas, are hours away by river.
The Marañón River—traditionally the villagers’ source of water for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing clothes and dishes—flows past just a few meters from Saldaña’s doorstep, but she no longer trusts it. Like many of her neighbors, she collects and stores rainwater instead.
“We don’t drink river water any more,” she said. “It gives us diarrhea and stomachaches.”
“At first, I couldn’t get used to it,” she added, nodding toward the buckets of rainwater and wrinkling her nose. “How was I going to drink that? It doesn’t taste the same as river water. But we’ve become accustomed.”
When the spill occurred in 2014, no one warned Cuninico’s residents not to drink the water or eat the fish. Petroperú officials insisted that the water in the Cuninico River, a tributary of the Marañón, was safe to drink even though the community is downstream from the place where the pipeline right-of way crosses the river.
In February 2015, two months after Petroperú announced that the cleanup was finished and left the village, an inter-agency commission considering the possibility of declaring a health emergency arrived in Cuninico to inspect the spill site. Declaring an emergency would have paved the way for the village to receive one of the temporary water treatment plants being installed in various communities affected by oil pollution in the northern Peruvian Amazon.
Based largely on information from Petroperú, the commission decided against declaring an emergency. The inspection report said the site was clean, even though a reporter visiting two days later saw oil floating in the Cuninico River and the pipeline right-of-way and sacks of oil-soaked rags, boots and gloves awash at the site.
Petroperú managers admitted that the cleanup was not complete, however, and the company returned to continue the effort in September 2015.
Community leaders say Cuninico is now on a list to receive a water treatment plant, but no date has been set. The rainy season is ending, and the only other source of water is the river.
In early June, the head of the National Institute of Health’s office of occupational and environmental health arrived to deliver the results of samples taken in January to test for heavy metals in the blood and urine of residents of Cuninico and the neighboring village of San Pedro, where 7,000 barrels of oil spilled from the same pipeline in November 2014.
The urine analysis showed a large number of villagers with mercury and cadmium levels exceeding the reference value, or the threshold above which the metal may pose a health risk, according to Jonh Astete, director of the National Center for Occupational Health and Environmental Protection for Health (Centro Nacional de Salud Ocupacional y Protección del Medio Ambiente para la Salud, CENSOPAS), which conducted the study.
Arsenic levels in urine and most blood lead levels were within the range considered safe, he said, but Peru uses a reference value for lead that is twice the amount recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection.
Experts say there is no safe level of lead, especially for children and fetuses that may be exposed in the womb. Even small amounts of lead can cause neurological damage and affect children’s cognitive and physical development, according to Bruce Lanphear of Canada’s Simon Fraser University, who studies the effects of lead on children.
For villagers, the health study raised more questions than it answered, as it does not indicate possible sources of the contamination. Astete hopes a new study under way in four watersheds—the lower Marañón River and three tributaries, the Corrientes, Pastaza and Tigre—will help answer that question.
For that study, which also includes residents of Cuninico, health workers will analyze blood and urine for arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, barium and hydrocarbons. They are also filling out questionnaires and collecting samples of food prepared in the homes of the villagers being tested.
Researchers will return to the four watersheds in July and August to take water, sediment, soil and air samples. Astete hopes that comparing the blood and urine analyses with results from the food and environmental samples will allow researchers to identify the source of contamination and propose protective measures.
Villagers in those four watersheds and along the Chambira River have lived amid spills of oil and wastewater pumped from wells since drilling began in the area in the 1970s, when regulations were lax. Inspectors have identified scores of unremediated sites in and around villages and in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a protected area, and its buffer zone.
Over the years, Petroperú, U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum and Argentina-based Pluspetrol have operated the two main oil fields, known as Block 8 and Block 1AB, which was recently renamed Block 192.
Negotiations between indigenous organizations and the government last year over a new lease in Block 192, which is now operated by Pacific Stratus, led to a series of agreements including the toxicology study now under way, as well as land titling, remediation of polluted sites and support for projects that would generate income for communities.
In communities farther from the oil fields, however, many village leaders say they did not know about the environmental or health hazards posed by the operations, which are among the few sources of employment in the watersheds.
The reddish-brown crude oil pipeline has been part of the scenery for decades in the village of Mayuriaga, a cluster of thatch-roofed houses that is home to about 60 families. They walk along it to fetch water from a nearby stream and cut the weeds to keep the right-of-way clear.
“We didn’t know that it could break and cause pollution,” Segundo Sumpa, the president of the Federación de Nacionalidades Wampis del Perú, said in March.
Life changed overnight for residents of Mayuriaga and neighboring communities when the pipeline broke in early February, spilling an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude oil onto the ground. Heavy rains washed the oil into small streams, then into a stream known as Cashacaño [Quebrada Cashacaño], and from there into the Morona River and the Marañón.
Along the Morona River, villagers wondered when it would be safe to drink or bathe in the water or eat and sell the fish they catch. Their questions were echoed in Chiriaco, where heavy rains washed crude from the late-January spill down a stream and rivers.
In Chiriaco, the company bought barrels of oil back from anyone who collected it, creating a perverse incentive that led villagers, including children, to scoop up oil along riverbanks using no protective gear.
After the worst of the visible spill was past, company managers told villagers that the water and fish were safe. Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal warned against eating the fish, however, and analysis by a government laboratory found lead and cadmium in fish from the two rivers, although the source of the metals is unknown.
As part of a health emergency decree, the government and Petroperu are providing drinking water and food rations to communities along the Chiriaco and Morona rivers, but residents are not sure how long that will last.
Despite the lingering doubts about the spills and their aftermath, much has changed since villagers in Cuninico reported an oil slick and dead fish there two years ago. Because of increased Internet and cell phone coverage, news of spills spreads in a matter of hours, rather than days or weeks—or never—as in the past.
The spill in Cuninico marked the first time that Petroperú hired outside experts—the Finnish company Lamor—for spill cleanup. Petroperú handled the cleanup in San Pedro itself, an effort that is still incomplete, but hired Lamor again for the Chiriaco and Morona spills.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit on behalf of Cuninico is working its way through Peru’s court system and could be expanded to include other communities.
And on June 9, Galo Vásquez, president of Cuninico, and Flor de María Parana, a mother from the community, testified about the spills in a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Santiago, Chile. They were joined by Wrays Pérez, president of the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation (Gobierno Territorial Autónomo de la Nación Wampis) and lawyer Juan Carlos Ruiz of the Lima-based non-profit Legal Defense Institute (Instituto de Defensa Legal, IDL), which is handling the Cuninico lawsuit.
In response to their testimony, Iván Bazán of the Peruvian Justice Ministry told the commissioners that government agencies were responding to the spills, and Germán Velásquez, president of the Petroperú board of directors, apologized to the communities for the spills. The government representatives verbally invited the commissioners to visit the communities.
But lawsuits and compensation will not solve the immediate need for clean water or alleviate doubts about whether fish are safe to eat. And it is not clear whether compensation for damages will include possible harm to health or economic losses from fishing.
Villagers in affected communities along all the rivers say they must now travel farther upstream to hunt and fish, forays that are more costly in time and gasoline for their small boat motors.
Asked how life has changed in Cuninico since the spill, Vásquez said, “What we have now is uncertainty.”