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Tanker identified as possible Brazil oil spill perpetrator

  • The disastrous oil spill on Brazil’s northeast coast began August 30, with 116 municipalities already impacted and 6,000 tons of crude recovered so far. The oil continues to move southward and is now threatening Rio de Janeiro state. However, almost three months into the spill, the debate over its origin continues.
  • Yesterday, an expert from the Federal University of Alagoas reported to Congress that the tanker responsible for the spill may be the Voyager I, which he said was off the coast of Brazil with its location transponder turned off during the period the spill would have occurred. Satellite detection of two slicks seem to implicate Voyager I.
  • But other experts disagree, saying transponder evidence puts Voyager I near India during the critical late July period when the spill occurred. Since this story’s publication, Voyager I representatives have also provided evidence of the India location at the time of the spill (see box and links at end of this story).
  • More than 100 ships passed through the seas near the eastern tip of Brazil between July 19 and 24. As a result, debate over the source of the oil spill is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
The Voyager I tanker, which Federal University of Alagoas researchers have implicated in the oil spill. Other researchers disagree with this conclusion. Image © MarineTraffic.com

The massive oil spill on Brazil’s northeast coast beginning August 30 has now impacted 675 locations in 116 municipalities, with experts expecting the crude to soon reach as far south as Rio de Janeiro state. Yet, nearly three months after the first oil came ashore, speculation over the disaster’s source continues.

However, this week may have seen a break in the case. On November 17, the Laboratory for Analyzing and Processing Satellite Images (LAPIS) at the Federal University of Alagoas issued a statement saying that it had identified a possible culprit.

Yesterday, November 21, LAPIS director Prof. Humberto Barbosa testified to Brazil’s Congress that satellite images suggest a Marshall Islands-flagged tanker, the Voyager I, is responsible for the disaster.

Barbosa told the Chamber of Deputies that the Voyager had its AIS location transponder turned off during the July 19 to 24 period when satellite images first identified slicks off the coast of Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte. “Both [oil slicks] correspond considering the ship’s normal speed and course, although the Voyager I had its transponder turned off in that region,” he testified.

However, oil pollution watchdog SkyTruth raised questions about LAPIS’ conclusions. SkyTruth analyst Bjorn Bergman told Mongabay via email: “This doesn’t make sense because AIS shows other vessels at the scene. I also still haven’t seen anything to confirm that the vessel [Voyager I] ever left port in India in July.”

LAPIS reports that between July 19 and 24, 111 ships passed through the seas near the eastern tip of Brazil.

Emmanuel Belostrino, a crude oil market analyst, added data to support Bergman’s doubts. Belostrino works with Kpler, a data intelligence firm offering transparency solutions in commodity markets. Belostrino told Mongabay via email that the Voyager I’s signal registered off the coast of India on July 6. The ship’s next available signal registered on July 24, again near the port of Vadinar in India. According to Kpler’s calculations, a one-way journey from Vadinar to the port of José in Venezuela via Cape Town, South Africa takes 35 days at a speed of 12 knots.

Asked about this discrepancy, Barbosa told Mongabay that LAPIS had identified the Voyager I´s transponder signal off the Brazilian coast.

Bergman wondered whether LAPIS has additional information that hasn’t been made public. He also noted that SkyTruth has identified a bilge dump that seems to have originated from a Brazilian-flagged ship on July 19th. Bilge is the dirty water, oil and other contaminants that collect in the bottom of a ship’s hold. This bilge water is periodically pumped out either properly in port or improperly into the ocean. In the latter case, it is called ”bilge dumping.” Earlier this month, Bergman authored a blog post discussing ships that were “loitering” in the area off Brazil that analysts have identified as the location where the spill likely originated.

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

As of now, more than 6,000 tons of oil have been recovered from the Brazilian coastal environment according to CBN Radio. The Brazilian Navy reports the beaches of Espirito Santo, the state just north of Rio de Janeiro, were clean of oil as of November 20.

Even so, many observers continue to be critical of the government’s disaster readiness. Fabiana Martins, a board member of the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association, wrote in an article that her calls for better regulations to prevent and deal with marine accidents have met with skepticism.

A Voyager I representative responds Nov. 23, 2019: I’m writing on behalf of the owner of the Voyager 1, Sanibel Seatrade. (I’m the director of Navigate Response, a London based public relations agency). Our client has independent evidence (satellite imagery, port authority data) that the evidence presented by Prof Humbero Barbosa was completely incorrect. Its vessel Voyager 1 was 11,000 km away in India between 20 June and 21 Aug 2019. The Marshall Islands flag has also backed this up: There’s a story here where this is reported. The quote from the Marshall Islands is: “The Republic of the Marshall Islands Maritime Administrator confirms that the Pole Star Long Range Identification and Tracking data shows the vessel VOYAGER 1 (IMO 9233789) in the vicinity of Vladinar Terminal, India between 20 June and 21 August 2019.” Our statement can be downloaded here. I would be grateful if you could update your story to reflect this.
Kind regards — Bill Lines

Banner Image caption: More than 100 ships were off the Brazilian coast in the proximity of the oil spill at the time it occurred, so finding the guilty tanker is proving a challenge for scientists, especially since tankers moving oil out of U.S. sanctioned Venezuela often turn off their locator transponders becoming “dark ships” to avoid detection. Photo on Visual hunt

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