Peru vows to make oil refinery pay for oil spill after Tonga volcano erupts

LIMA, Peru — More than two weeks after a failed tanker delivery sent thousands of barrels of crude oil into the sea off the coast of Peru, black waves still cover the beaches and fingers are still being pointed at.

The explanation for what happened doesn’t seem to be closer to the end than the cleanup itself.

The oil has washed about 27 miles off the Pacific coast, pushed north by winds to beaches along Peru’s desert coast, leaving countless dead fish and marine animals covered in oil, including otters. Sea fish and penguins living on rocky islands are endangered. in two protected marine protected areas.

“For the ecosystem to fully recover, we’re talking 10, maybe 20 years,” said Deyvis Huamán, a biologist with Peru’s national park system.

The spill happened at the Pampilla refinery, operated by Spanish company Repsol, near the Peruvian capital, Lima. Its range has grown far beyond initial expectations, as the company initially reported only a small leak amounting to about 7 gallons.

That is an error of tens of thousands. After learning the true extent of the disaster, the Peruvian president stood on an oil-filled beach and denounced what he said was “one of the greatest ecological disasters on our shores”.

The question now is: Who is responsible?

Repsol said the January 15 spill was caused by a surge in sea levels caused by an unusually powerful volcano that erupted thousands of miles away, off the island nation of Tonga. It said the event damaged an underwater system of pipes and hoses from which moored tankers pump crude into their refineries, and noted that while neighboring countries put issued a tsunami warning, Peru did not.

“We are not causing an ecological disaster,” a company spokesman told Peruvian television in the days after the spill.

But this week, the government announced that it would suspend all operations at the Repsol refinery, an action the company called “disproportionate and unreasonable.” A state prosecutor has begun looking into whether the company properly maintained its underwater plumbing and piping system. And four senior Repsol officials have been legally barred from leaving the country.

“We will take responsibility for it,” President Pedro Castillo announced at a rally. “We will protect the sea, and we will condemn and punish the company that pollutes our seas.”

However, Peruvian investigators said they would also consider the claim that the Peruvian Navy failed to respond to its mission to issue tsunami warnings. The Navy, which has come under criticism from other regions for not issuing warnings, said it was also conducting its own investigation.

Even some of the most fundamental facts are disputed – among them the condition of the waters beyond the refinery that day.

While the company cited unusual waves, the captain of the Italian tanker delivering Brazilian crude to the refinery said that the water was not too strong and that the ship did not collide with any part of the facility. station infrastructure. The head of the local rowing association also said the sea was calm, as did Navy officials.

The tanker, the Mare Doricum, owned by La Fratelli d’Amico Armatori, was seized by the authorities. The company said it was cooperating with Peruvian authorities, and noted that no charges had been filed against its crew.

Although the conditions that day were disputed, there is little doubt that areas of Peru, like other countries far from the volcano, were devastated by the tsunami.

To the north, two women were swept away by waves attributed to the eruption. And in Callao Bay, where the refinery is located, waves about 1.5 meters high, or about 5 meters, were recorded by sea level monitoring stations around the time Repsol reported the spill. out, said Francisco Hernandez of the Flanders Maritime Institute. That could have “shaken” the water or caused strong currents underwater, he said.

In a statement to The New York Times, Repsol stood firm.

“This accident was caused by an unforeseen maritime event to our knowledge,” it said. Mare Doricum’s captain said: “The ship’s mooring lines were broken due to the abnormal swelling. Speculation that calm seas conflict with publicly available experimental data from the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, not to mention the hundreds of social media posts that afternoon.”

Unusual waves. Unpredictability is another matter.

While Peru did not issue a warning, several international tsunami warnings have been issued for the region, but neither the Navy nor Repsol have restricted activities.

And although the company has publicize the development of the oil leak early warning system, Repsol deployed a team of divers to check the underwater conditions just the next day. The company said the previous conditions were unsafe for divers.

Gustavo Navarro, a former La Pampilla manager and now an energy consultant, said: “Obviously there was a big set of mistakes.

This is not Repsol’s first spill in Peru. A leak in 2013 caused by a corroded pipeline released about 196 barrels. The total fines against the company were then less than $200,000, but President Castillo’s leftist government said this time it would be different. Government ministers have promised “drastic” penalties, possibly more than $50 million, with the aim of setting an example.

After operations at the refinery were suspended on Monday, the company said it would work with the government to reopen as quickly as possible. It notes that it supplies almost half of Peru’s fuel and said it will “do its best” to avoid shortages.

The company has also come under fire for its cleanup efforts.

Repsol has offered to hire fishermen and others who have lost their jobs because of the oil spill to help, but local media reports that workers are being paid poorly and some have passed out from breathing in the dust. on crude oil-soaked beaches.

But with the prevalence robbing them of their livelihoods, at least for now, many have little choice.

The oil spill occurred at the height of the summer beach season, and working-class coastal communities dependent on fishing and tourism were hit hardest after a recession. prolonged associated with the pandemic.

Roberto Zamora, 45, a fisherman in the Ventanilla district, where the refinery is located, said: “The restaurants, the cevicherías – no one eats at them anymore. “No one wants to buy fish, even fish from the open sea.”

Peruvian tourism officials put the figure at about $52 million, a figure that does not include the impact on fishermen.

Mr Zamora said he has not worked a day since the first spill washed “black lava” across local fishing grounds, stripping him not only of his income but also his family’s main source of protein. .

He wants an explanation for what happened, a serious plan for remediation and compensation – and something even more important.

“What we want is respect,” Mr. Zamora said. “And this is disrespectful to our oceans. It doesn’t just affect me. It doesn’t just affect fellow fishermen. It is an insult to the whole world. ”

“They poisoned the sea,” he said.

Raphael Minder and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting. Peru vows to make oil refinery pay for oil spill after Tonga volcano erupts

Fry Electronics Team

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