Peru calls oil spill at Repsol-owned refinery an “ecological disaster”

The Government of Peru has formally declared an environmental emergency following a 15 January oil spill at a Repsol-owned refinery near the Ventanilla district to the north of the Lima metropolitan region. The spill, estimated to be of about 6,000 barrels, has affected more than 700 hectares of water and 180 hectares of coastline, and with currents pushing the oil north, it continues to cause more environmental damage and threatens the health and livelihoods of nearby coastal communities. Government response to the disaster is involving several different public offices, while Repsol reports they have deployed 1,800 people to respond to the refinery’s spill and specialized machinery to help contain further spread.

In view of 21 contaminated beaches, thousands of dead birds and fish, and a huge oil slick that is coming ever closer to the coast of the capital Lima, the government has declared a 90-day environmental emergency. Three months to clean up as best as possible contamination across an area the size of 270 soccer fields, and enough time to investigate the all-important question of who is ultimately responsible for the disaster.

The Madrid-based oil company, which in 2020 generated sales of almost €50 billion ($56.6 billion) in 29 countries, is denying responsibility. Initially, it reported only seven gallons of spilled crude oil, not even 1% of the actual amount, claiming everything was under control.

Repsol failed to react during the first 48 hours of the spill, when there was still a possibility of containing it. Now it has volunteers cleaning up the ecological disaster for a pittance and often without adequate protective clothing. Ironically, they include fishermen, too.

“Did we respond quickly enough? No. We were not aware of the magnitude of the event before oil washed up on the beaches. Of course we made mistakes,” says Repsol Peru President Jaime Fernandez Cuesta, adding that the plan is to have cleaned up the beaches by the end of February. However, he argues, the volcanic eruption in the South Pacific state of Tonga was responsible for the accident, because it triggered tidal waves and abnormal currents.

Over the last 25 years, there have been no less than 1,002 oil spills that contaminated the environment, more than half in the Peruvian jungle, over 400 in the sea. The multinational oil firms face few consequences because after all, business must go on. “The fines are ridiculous when you consider how much money these companies move around, and they always have an army of lawyers who get the best deal for the oil companies, so they often even take advantage of the lawsuits,” says Juan Carlos Riveros, the biologist and scientific director of the nongovernmental organization Oceana.

Thousands of mainly young Peruvians, including many fishermen who face losing their livelihood, have taken to the streets in recent days to demand harsh consequences for Repsol. Juan Carlos Riveros is pessimistic about their future, saying that the extinction of species, deformities in animals and contamination for generations to come are the consequences of the accident. “The heavy oil is toxic, people here won’t be eating fish for a while. It may take a year for the fishery to return to pre-disaster levels,” he says. “By then, many fishermen will have given up.”

source – DW News