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Oil spills plague Venezuelan coast, but cleanup efforts are lacking: Report

One of several refineries that sit on the Paraguana Peninsula coast in Venezuela (via Wikicommons)

  • There have been 53 oil spills in Venezuela this year through September, most of them concentrated on the Caribbean coast where massive government oil refineries operate with little environmental oversight.
  • The Venezuelan government rarely publishes records of oil spills or other environmental conflicts, making it difficult to track oil spills and coordinate appropriate responses.
  • The oil spills are doing incalculable damage to local ecosystems, which include mangroves and the estuary known as Lake Maracaibo.

It’s not unusual to see some rivers running black in Venezuela, or for fishermen to return home scraping dark sludge off their boots.

Crumbling infrastructure and a lack of government oversight in the petroleum-rich country have made oil spills an endemic problem along the coast, according to a report published this month by the Venezuelan Observatory for Political Ecology.

It warns of incalculable damage to mangroves on the Caribbean coast and unique estuary ecosystems in Lake Maracaibo.

“They keep happening,” said Elsa Rodríguez, a member of the observatory. “Every year they’re more frequent. It doesn’t just hurt the wildlife but also the local fishermen.”

Because the Venezuelan government rarely publishes records of oil spills or other environmental conflicts, conservation groups have to rely on citizen reporting and satellite data to piece together trends. For the observatory’s report, it relied on social media posts from local community members suffering from oil spills, as well as satellite imagery from biologist Eduardo Klein of Simón Bolívar University in Caracas.

The information, even if missing numerous data points, shows that the country continues to experience dozens of oil spills annually, often in areas with high levels of biodiversity. This year, it has averaged nearly six oil spills per month, with a total of 53 through September.

An overwhelming majority of the spills have been located in the coastal states of Zulia, which had nine spills, and Falcón, which had 33. Both states are home to some of Venezuela’s largest oil refinery complexes, controlled by state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA).

Venezuela is one of the most oil-rich countries in the world, sitting on more than 303 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves and more than 3.5 billion barrels of proven natural gas reserves, according to OPEC. In 2020, oil accounted for about 99% of the country’s export earnings.

One of this year’s worst spills occurred in June, when a tank at a facility in Punta Cardón, Falcón, on the Paraguaná Peninsula near Aruba, began to leak through a crack in its base. Local media reported that the tank couldn’t be repaired until it had completely emptied its 3.6 million liters of gasoline nine days later.

The facility is reportedly supposed to receive a maintenance check every two years, but had not been attended to since around 2016. It’s a common story for oil spills in Venezuela.

“There should be more responsibility shown by the state,” Rodríguez said. “The oil spills are its direct responsibility. But there is very little action in response to these events. In very few cases do they adequately respond.”

A lack of government transparency makes it difficult to quantify the environmental impact on local ecosystems, which include mangroves and unique fish and crustacean life supported by Lake Maracaibo’s brackish water. A number of species in the area appear to be on the decline, including the northern screamer (Chauna chavaria) and the Zulia toad-headed turtle (Mesoclemmys zuliae).

The report said government officials often prevent scientists and other experts from entering areas with oil spills and almost never publish their own cleanup methods, or whether there was a cleanup at all. The country’s economic and political crisis has driven away much of the scientific community that might have taken this work into its own hands.

“The problem in Venezuela is that there is a total lack of official information about these events,” said Klein, who put together the satellite images, “whether they’re accidents, whether it’s a continual discharge into the ocean. We have to use tools that are more indirect.”

Satellite images are a key part of oil spill monitoring in any country, Klein said, but without additional resources it has proven nearly impossible to statistically measure the impact they’re having in the long term, especially since much of the hydrocarbons from the spills are settling at the bottom of the ocean where readings aren’t easily taken.

Fisherman at Lake Maracaibo
Videos on social media show fishermen at Lake Maracaibo covered in oil. (via Proyecto Sotalia

During a June interview, Minster of Ecosocialism Josué Lorca told local press that oil spills “are nothing to write home about because historically, they have always existed.” A similar sentiment has started to develop among local communities, which experience oil spills so often that they have come to view them as a normal part of life.

“People get used to this just like they do the power outages, the gasoline shortages, the food and water shortages,” Klein said. “If you show people a picture of the contamination, they say, ‘ah, another oil spill, what a disaster.’ But that’s it. So I think there’s a lack of action and awareness about how this problem is going to affect the future of marine environments, with repercussions on every economic sector.”

He added, “These are events that aren’t unimportant because they happen all the time. On the contrary, the more constant they are, the worse the impact.”

Banner image: The Amua Refinery, one of several that sit on the Paraguaná Peninsula’s coast in Venezuela (via Wikicommons)

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