On Sunday March 15, regional Venezuelan daily El Periódico de Monagas reported a possible petroleum spill in the Guarapiche River, northeastern Venezuela. The apparent leak originated from the local Jusepín complex, owned by state-run oil firm Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).
Reporters Osmel Rodríguez and Henry Bastardo decided to investigate; just as Rodríguez had in February 2012 when 80,000 barrels‘ worth of oil spilled into the river within 20 hours. At the time, it was the worst oil slick Venezuela had seen in 74 years.
“When we moved closer to take pictures, the smell was the same as it was in 2012,” Rodríguez told the PanAm Post. However, a group of soldiers prevented them from reaching the river.+
A high-ranking military official then interrogated the pair for 15 minutes and prohibited them from returning. Their attempt to report on the disaster prompted the intense military presence now surrounding the plant and access to the river.
Residents in neighboring areas confirmed to the press as well as environmental organizations that the contaminant looks similar to the 2012 oil spill.
In a press release published that same Sunday, PDVSA stated that the leak was not crude oil, but “water treated for injection into the oil fields” in the Jusepín plant, used to generate secondary crude. According to the state-owned firm, employees took immediate action to contain and extract the liquid.
PDVSA indicated that the leak would not affect the Bajo Guarapiche water reclamation plant, located 40 kilometers away in Maturín, the capital of Monagas State. The plant supplies 80 percent of the water consumed in the city, which is home to approximately 400,000 residents.
State Governor Yelitze Santaella confirmed this version of the events via Twitter, reassuring residents that there would be no interruption in the city’s water service. Santaella told press that the incident occurred due to employees falling asleep.
Venezuela’s Public Ministry appointed Oswaldo Perero of the 14th Environmental District Court of Monagas to investigate the cause of the overflow of a “tank of oil.” The terminology used by the ministry has raised doubts as to the true origin of the spill.
Suspicions were heightened after Santaella reportedly told local media that the spill was in fact petroleum-related.
While the affected area has been under strict military supervision, uncertainty escalated days later when water services in Maturín were cut off. The authorities claimed that the situation was due to an electrical failure at the river’s treatment plant.
Orlando Moreno, a member of local NGO Ojiru Vida Ecológica, told the PanAm Post that after the February 2012 spill, Maturín went more than 50 days without water because of severe contamination. Then-Governor José Gregorio Briceño prohibited the reopening of water lines to the city because the water quality was so poor, but faced central government pressure to do so, Moreno added.
This precedent has stimulated fears over the current quality of water. “When the spill happened, they very well could have killed us with the contaminated water. They insisted on opening the water lines, and we could see how the city’s water was black and oily,” the activist explained.
On March 17, Briceño posted this photo on Twitter. Although its authenticity nor the date it was taken cannot be confirmed, the image corresponds with descriptions given by local residents.
Moreno added that beyond concerns over the water supply, prompt attention should be given to the environmental impact of such accidents — something not helped by alleged government misinformation in the current case.
The latest incident will only add to the destruction caused by the 2012 spill. This year, researchers from the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) confirmed that the damage caused two years ago could take between another three to 10 years to repair.
Antonio Machado-Allison of UCV’s Institute of Tropical Zoology and Ecology explained that the Guarapiche Forest Reserve and the neighboring Turuépano National Park contain unique species of flora and fauna not found anywhere else in the world.
In addition, the only healthy manatee population in northern South America lives in this area, and severe contamination of the river puts them in serious danger.
Machado-Allison also stated that the 2012 spill would not only kill flora and fauna in the 21,000 square-kilometer river basin, but would likely impact plant and animal life in the eastern portion of the Venezuelan Caribbean, and is likely to have even affected the coast of Trinidad.
According to the expert, the spill will result in long term changes to the river’s water quality, including temperature and CO2 levels.
In 2012, PDVSA spilled 143,597 barrels of petroleum, an increase of 80.4 percent on 2011, when 79,599 barrels’ worth of oil were released into the environment. Figures remained high in 2013, with the state firm dumping 81,909 barrels of crude, according to its latest environmental report.
Authorities Blame “Sabotage”
While the Public Ministry investigates the event, Monagas city council members visited the Jusepín plant, ostensibly to learn the truth about what happened.
Councillor Humberto González claimed that the incident was the result of sabotage, reporting that special tools are required to manipulate the tank that reportedly leaked.
When the previous oil spill took place on February 4, 2012, PDVSA workers were unable to attend to the disaster immediately, as they were at a demonstration to commemorate the attempted coup d’etat headed by former President Hugo Chávez 20 years previously. The armed forces subsequently locked down the disaster zone and access to reporters.