Uncertainty reigns 6 months after massive Peru oil spill

By Paula Bayarte

Lima, Jul 15 (EFE).- Around 11,000 barrels of oil spilled into the ocean and tarred Pacific Coast beaches following a Jan. 15 leak at a Peruvian refinery operated by Spanish energy company Repsol, triggering a flurry of accusations and demands that those responsible be held accountable.

But six months later, uncertainty still remains about the real environmental impact of the spill and the predicament facing thousands of affected individuals.

“The situation is at a standstill,” Juan Carlos Riveros, the scientific director of the Oceana Peru environmental non-governmental organization, told Efe.

He was referring to the lack of an official report on what, according to the United Nations, was the worst environmental disaster in the Andean nation’s recent history.

When accidents like the one in the Bay of Callao occur, a multi-phase process is typically carried out that begins with a clean-up effort and is followed by a detailed report on the damage to waters, beaches and living organisms.

Riveros said a so-called “remediation” stage will then ensue after a report on the spill is issued by the Environmental Assessment and Control Agency (OEFA), a unit of Peru’s Environment Ministry.

Since that report has not yet been made public, the process of remediating the impact of the spill – either using micro-organisms to eliminate the toxicity of crude residues or solvents that aid with ecological restoration – has been delayed.

“It’s criminal that the situation remains like this six months on,” the specialist said.

Repsol told Efe in that regard that it is still awaiting the release of OEFA’s assessment report, saying that is a necessary step prior to the launch of any necessary restoration work and the resumption of its productive activities.

Although OEFA told Efe the report will be ready in August, Oceana’s director complained of a lack of efficiency in the months following the spill, though also acknowledging that political instability – including attempts to impeach leftist President Pedro Castillo – and constant Cabinet shuffles during the head of state’s first year in office have exacerbated the problems.

Repsol says the environmental disaster off Peru’s coast had its origins in the remote South Pacific region, where a volcanic eruption off the island nation of Tonga led to tsunami alerts being issued in several Pacific coast countries.

But no such alert was issued by Peru’s navy.

The Spanish company says the lack of a warning is the reason it did not halt the pumping of crude from the moored Mare Doricum oil tanker to its La Pampilla refinery in Ventanilla, a district of the Callao Region, part of the Lima metropolitan area.

The oil spilled when abnormally large waves damaged the underwater system of pipes used to deliver the crude to the refinery, Repsol says.

The energy company initially said that just 0.16 barrels (around 25 liters) had spilled, but days later it acknowledged that in fact 10,396 barrels had leaked into the ocean. Peruvian authorities put the total amount spilled at 11,900 barrels.

The spill affected 112 square kilometers (43 square miles) of Peruvian territorial waters and coastline, while images of birds covered in crude, dead fish, tarred beaches and desperate fishermen were splashed on the front pages of newspapers.

Amid the investigations into the accident, a Peruvian congressional committee said on June 14 that the spill was the result of deficiencies in the process of delivering crude from the Italian tanker to the refinery, noting that the pumping was not halted even though the tanker was improperly moored.

But Repsol rejected those findings, saying there was no technical basis for the conclusions and that they did not contribute to clearing up the incident.

The spill occurred at the start of the Southern Hemisphere summer and severely interrupted tourist activity in that region, affecting the livelihoods of fishermen, hotel staff and street and beach vendors.

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