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Nearly three months after Brazil oil spill, origins remain uncertain

  • Oil was first sighted on Brazil’s northeastern coast on August 30, with more than 4,000 tons washing up since. Authorities claim the oil didn’t come from Brazil, but rather had come from a tanker loaded with crude from Venezuela — a failed state.
  • The trending theory is that the dumping was done by a “dark ship” with its location transponders intentionally turned off so as to dodge U.S. sanctions against the transport of Venezuelan oil. While “bilge dumping” could be the cause, analysts say the practice isn’t likely to have resulted in Brazil’s mass spill.
  • The government initially identified one tanker as the likely perpetrator and then expanded to five possible culprits. But a new analysis of satellite data by Federal University of Alagoas researchers may have pinpointed the responsible tanker; those findings are to be presented to the Brazilian Senate on November 21.
  • The Bolsonaro government has been faulted for its disaster response. It seemed unaware of Brazil’s 2013 National Contingency Plan for dealing with spills, and didn’t enact the plan until October 11. Also, the executive committee charged with implementing the plan was disbanded by the administration early in 2019.
While the Brazilian government’s oil spill reaction was viewed by critics as lackluster, the response by local volunteers was exceptional as they worked to clean up contaminated beaches. Image by Clemente Coelho / State University of Pernambuco.

On August 30th, what appeared to be crude oil began washing up on the beaches of Northeastern Brazil. Authorities didn’t know where it was coming from. Now, more than two months since the initial contamination, over 4,000 tons of oil have sullied the region’s beaches and mangrove swamps — devastating tourism and the environment.

The crude’s origins still remain uncertain, with the Jair Bolsonaro government criticized for its slow response and for the secrecy that may be hampering the investigation. However, the disaster has shed light on the challenges of policing ocean dumping, and the phenomenon of “dark ships.”

Dark ships are cargo vessels that turn off their location transponders so as to navigate without sending a signal indicating their position, allowing them to travel the world’s oceans undetected except by satellite — a violation of international maritime law.

Satellite images analyzed by LAPIS, the Satellite Image Processing Laboratory at the Federal University of Alagoas now suggest that the oil tanker originally fingered by investigators is likely the wrong one. Moreover, it appears that the culprit was traveling with its location transponder turned off. That is, it was a “dark ship.”

Further, LAPIS researchers have informed the Brazilian publication Exame that the tanker in question left an Asian nation on July 1, but that it’s next transponder signal only registered near the coast of Guyana on July 28. While the ship was crossing the Atlantic, it didn’t make any port stops and it made a “strange maneuver,” indicating a change in course, according to the report.

Boots on the ground: volunteers fought the spill with shovels, scooping up oil and isolating it as best they could on plastic sheeting. Image by Clemente Coelho / State University of Pernambuco.

Dark ships aren’t uncommon off the South American coast — or in other oceans, for that matter. Kpler, a data intelligence firm offering transparency solutions in commodity markets, provided Mongabay with a list of 14 ships that had turned off their transponders after leaving the Venezuelan port of San José between late May and mid-October. Thirteen of those ships were carrying a kind of crude oil known as Merey 16.

In October, Brazilian authorities accused the Greek-flagged ship, Bouboulina, of the spill, later adding four more Greek ships to the list of suspects. Like the other “dark ships,” the Bouboulina was carrying Merey 16. Brazilian authorities have not said whether this is the kind of oil hitting the country’s beaches. Delta Tankers, the Boubolina’s owner, said it would cooperate with the investigation. However, the new information from LAPIS would seem to exonerate the Bouboulina. The details about the new suspect tanker will be shared with Brazil’s Senate this coming Thursday, November 21.

“This is a safety issue as these AIS signals help vessels avoid collisions and other maritime accidents,” Emmanuel Belostrino, a crude oil market analyst with Kpler explained. “Ship captains will not normally stop broadcasting these signals, unless they are actively trying to hide their positions, like the case of vessels carrying Iranian and Venezuelan crude.”

Oil-rich Venezuela has been grappling with the challenges brought by U.S. sanctions invoked by the Trump administration. “Prior to January of this year, there were some sanctions on dealing with PDVSA [Venezuela’s state oil company], but they weren’t general prohibitions,” explained Jonathan Epstein, a maritime trade attorney with the firm Holland & Knight. The target of the sanctions then, Epstein said, were tankers carrying Venezuelan oil to Cuba. Subsequently, the U.S. issued new guidance implying that foreign shipping firms could be subject to the sanctions if they carried Venezuelan oil, regardless of destination. This, Epstein said, “scared away most of the trade because there is a fear, and a legitimate fear, that [the firms] could be sanctioned or that a vessel could be sanctioned for carrying oil.”

These sanctions complicate the monitoring of oil shipments off the coast of Brazil and could be intensifying illegal behavior in shipping lanes there. Reuters reported in October that Chinese firm COSCO Shipping Tanker (Dalian) had turned off transponders aboard roughly a third of the company’s fleet. This, after the US sanctioned the firm in September for allegedly transporting Iranian oil.

Communities all along the contaminated sections of the Brazilian coast responded to the call to action. Image by Clemente Coelho / State University of Pernambuco.

Pinpointing the spill’s origin hasn’t only been hampered by dark ships. Brazilian authorities have yet to release a chemical analysis of the oil, which could indicate its source. Experts interviewed by Mongabay criticized this decision, saying the silence prevents organizations outside Brazil from helping solve the mystery.

The Bolsonaro administration has also come under fire for its lax disaster response. Although the Navy reacted to the crisis early on, the administration seemed unaware of Brazil’s National Contingency Plan created in 2013 to deal with oil spills. In fact, at the start of the year, the President disbanded the executive committee charged with implementing that plan as part of sweeping administrative changes. Minister of Environment Ricard Salles only enacted the contingency plan on October 11, more than a month after the first oil sightings.

The spill has also highlighted how the practice of “bilge dumping” goes largely unregulated off the shores of developing countries. The “bilge” is the lowest compartment of a ship, which often collects water and residual oil. Bilge dumping is the practice of pumping this contaminated wastewater out of a ship and into the open sea.

John Amos of the environmental monitoring group SkyTruth notes that his organization has identified similar bilge dumps off the Brazilian coast over the past several months, including one in July near the northeastern city of João Pessoa. Sky Truth has also identified bilge dumps in Southeast Asia and off the coast of Africa, showing it to be common practice globally.

However, Amos and oil spill expert Gerald Graham both agreed on an important detail, telling Mongabay that they don´t believe a bilge dump was the source of Brazil´s present oil troubles because of the large amount of oil involved.

A fish killed by the spill. There has yet to be an assessment of the ecological harm done. Image by Clemente Coelho / State University of Pernambuco.

Speaking specifically of the Bouboulina, Amos raised a question that could equally apply to any oil-laden tanker leaving Venezuela: “They clearly were [there] picking up a load of crude oil. Why would you do that and then intentionally dump that crude oil into the ocean?”

Graham concurred, underscoring the commercial value of oil. “I fail to see how anybody could think this was from a bilge spill. You don’t have high viscosity, very thick crude oil coming from bilge tanks, which is basically wastewater, sewage, essentially.”

Marcus Silva, an oceanographer at the Federal University of Pernambuco, told Mongabay that he and a team of researchers are preparing an ocean expedition aboard a Brazilian Navy ship at the end of November. The scientists will collect water and sediment samples to determine the extent and intensity of contamination.

“We have to be careful with the sediment,” Silva said. “Historically, around the world, the big impact from oil spills comes from the sediment near the bottom. This has consequences for the entire food chain, and it’s slow-acting,” he said.

Silva uses mathematical models to predict the flow of oil and other materials in water. To assist with the spill investigation, Silva provided his models to Brazil’s Federal Police who swore him to secrecy regarding the results. He was, however, able to tell Mongabay that “various aspects of my models correspond to what is being presented,” but not all of them.

“My simulations are not yet conclusive,” Silva clarified. He noted that after sharing his original results with the Federal Police, he was supposed to receive data back from them that he could feed back into his analysis. In spite of his follow-up requests, that data hasn’t been forthcoming.

The Federal Police told Mongabay they do not comment on ongoing investigations.

“What I know, and what I can say, is that I use tools used by the European Community for [spill] forecasts in the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic,” Silva said. These tools include currents and models for predicting oil spill dispersion. Silva described this modeling program as “the best in the world” pointing out that the U.S. uses the same system to track hurricanes.

In contrast, Silva said Brazilian federal authorities are using a different data set to feed the model. This set, he said, is not as robust as the one used for hurricane forecasting. This, Silva said, could lead to what modelers call “garbage in, garbage out.”

Neither Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, nor the Navy, replied to emailed questions concerning the spill investigation.

Banner Image caption: An oil tanker at sea. Photo credit: tfadam on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND.

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An oil polluted Brazilian beach. Illegal dumping by dark ships is a major environmental problem around the globe. Image by Clemente Coelho / State University of Pernambuco.
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