Oil spill at sea: who will pay for Peru’s worst environmental disaster?

As the state, the refinery and tanker owners play the blame game, damage to the region’s ecosystems continues to spread

More than a month after Peru’s worst ever environmental disaster on its coastline there are few signs of reckoning for Repsol, the Spanish energy company that manages the refinery where more than 10,000 barrels of crude oil spewed into the Pacific Ocean after a routine tanker discharge went awry.

The black slick, pushed north by wind and currents, tarred 25 beaches, polluted three protected marine reserves, and covers an area of about 106 sq km (40 sq miles) – the size of Paris.

It has wreaked destruction on one of the world’s richest marine ecosystems; killing fish and invertebrates, leaving more than 1,000 seabirds coated with oil, several hundred dead, and a toll on marine mammals such as endangered sea otters, according to Peru’s national service of state-protected natural areas (Sernanp).

In the early hours of 15 January, a rupture in an underwater pipeline sent crude oil gushing into the ocean from the Italian-flagged tanker Mare Doricum which was discharging from an offshore buoy linked to La Pampilla, Peru’s biggest oil refinery, just north of the capital, Lima.

The catastrophe for one of the world’s richest marine ecosystems, and at least 2,000 coastal fishers who depend on it, has raised the question of how environmental crimes should be punished during a time of climate crisis and catastrophic wildlife loss, as the oil firm, the captain of the tanker and the Peruvian state all blame one another.

Under Peru’s strict liability law, Repsol is ultimately responsible for the spill, said Manuel Pulgar Vidal, the country’s former environment minister and now global leader of climate and energy at WWF. But Peru has a poor record of holding big business to account for pollution, he says. “Expectations for getting [decent] compensation are very low.”

Peru accuses Repsol of reacting late, launching its contingency plan for the spill the day after it occurred. This is denied by the company, which said in a statement that it “activated its contingency plan and communicated the facts to the relevant authorities … the same night as the ship’s accident”.

Four Repsol officials, including the company’s Peru president, Jaime Fernández-Cuesta, have been barred from leaving the country while a state prosecutor investigates whether the oil company properly maintained its system of underwater pipelines. News reports showed photos of the ruptured pipes covered in rust.

While the oil company initially said a tsunami created by the eruption of a volcano in Tonga had triggered the spill, it later blamed the Mare Doricum, which it claims shifted its position during the oil discharge, allegations which the tanker company has denied.

The ship has been seized by the Peruvian authorities and the vessel’s Italian captain, Giacomo Pisani, has been included in the investigation. Pisani alleges that there were a series of irregularities in the discharge process and claimed the company’s containment barriers were not long enough.

Assigning blame has been further complicated because the Peruvian navy did not issue a tsunami warning after the Tonga volcanic eruption, unlike neighbouring Ecuador and Chile.

Clean-up workers fill barrels with recovered oil on a beach
Workers fill barrels with recovered oil at Cavero beach, Ventanilla, Peru. Photograph: Dan Collyns

While the argument over responsibility for the spill continues, the environmental and social consequences ripple outwards. The UN’s special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Marcos Orellana, who spent a week in Peru last month, says the slow reaction of the company and the authorities “aggravated the impacts” on the environment and the people who depend on it for food.

The effects on coastal fishing communities in Aucallama, about 30 miles north of the spill, have been overwhelming, as the tide of viscous crude clogs up the rock pools and cliffside crags where they catch crab, octopus, sea bass and grunt.

Fishing came to an abrupt halt, says Marcelo Muñoz, 60, who has been making a living by casting a hook and line from the cliffside since he was 12. The fish were so plentiful that he could earn more than $50 a day selling directly to the seaside restaurants serving ceviche to summertime beachgoers.

Now Muñoz and nearly 50 fellow artisanal fishers rely on food donations, which are shared in an “olla común”, a makeshift soup kitchen flanked by rows of empty clapboard eateries, all deserted during the busiest months of the year.

They are among about 2,000 people living off fishing who have been affected along a 50-mile stretch of coastline, says Juan Carlos Sueiro, fisheries director at the conservation group Oceana Peru. “Businesses associated with the summer months, such as restaurants, parasols and transport have all been abruptly cancelled since mid-January and we believe they should be compensated too,” he says.

On Friday, the company said it was trying to help about 4,100 people affected by the spill and had handed out 6,599 vouchers each worth £100 to affected families.

There is not enough information to assess the social impacts of the oil spills, says Orellana. “This is a huge gap that needs to be addressed because people depend on the seas for sustenance, livelihoods and food.”

The long-term effect on the ecosystem is even harder to calculate. While the oil is less visible, the toxic impact lingers.

At La Isla Pescadores, a protected marine reserve 37 miles north of Lima and home to almost 200,000 seabirds, park guards are recovering between 10 and 20 dead birds from the water every day.

A man in a protective suit on a boat picks a dead bird from the sea
Giancarlo Inga Díaz, a Sernanp vet, recovers birds killed by the oil from the sea near Isla Pescadores. Photograph: Dan Collyns

Many initially died from the oil covering their nostrils, says Giancarlo Inga Díaz, a vet working for Sernanp. “In the following days and weeks, the oil ruins the quality of the feathers and they cease to be waterproof. When that happens, the animals die of hypothermia.”

Others starve because they can no longer dive for fish, Inga Díaz says, or, over time, may become poisoned from ingesting toxins as they use their beaks to clean their feathers. “We believe that this pattern [of bird deaths] will continue in the long term,” he says.

Repsol estimates the clean-up will cost $65m. The company has paid more than $400,000 in environmental fines but more are expected.

Pulgar Vidal says Peru’s environmental assessment and enforcement agency should fine Repsol for the current clean-up and also order the firm to “adopt permanent monitoring” for at least the next five years. “Sadly, it is impossible to recover all the oil after a spill. At least 30% will remain in the ocean,” he says.

A “culture of impunity” and a lack of effective regulation is hugely harmful in one of the world’s most biodiverse nations, Pulgar Vidal says, adding: “We have the laws, we have good oversight agencies – the problem is enforcement.”

The global trend towards environmental justice in much of the world, he says, has “not reached Peru’s justice system”, which has a chequered record of enforcing environmental fines.

Orellana says the institutions, norms and implementation need to be strengthened to deal with ecological incidents so that the “people who are affected, the nature that is affected, can be properly remediated and prevention can be a reality”.


Dan Collyns in Ancón, Peru

The GuardianTramp

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