MMore than a month after Peru’s worst environmental disaster on its coastline, there are few signs of recognition for Repsol, the Spanish energy company that runs the refinery where more than 10,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean after a routine tanker unloading went wrong.
The black slick, pushed north by wind and currents, has tarred 25 beaches, polluted three protected marine reserves and covers an area of around 106 km2 (40 square miles) – the size of Paris.
It caused the destruction of one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world; killing fish and invertebrates, leaving more than 1,000 seabirds coated in oil, several hundred dead and a toll on marine mammals such as endangered sea otters, according to Peru’s National Natural Areas Service protected by the State (Sernanp).
In the early hours of January 15, a ruptured subsea pipeline spewed crude oil into the ocean from the Italian-flagged tanker Mare Doricum, which was unloading from an offshore buoy linked to La Pampilla, the most Peru’s largest oil refinery, just north of the capital, Lima.
The disaster 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 in times of climate crisis and catastrophic loss of wild species, while the oil company, the captain of the tanker and the Peruvian state accuse each other.
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 climate and energy manager at WWF. But Peru has a poor record when it comes to corporate pollution liability, he says. “Expectations to get [decent] salaries are very low.
Peru accuses Repsol of reacting late, launching its contingency plan for the spill the day after it. This is denied by the company, which said in a statement that it had “activated its emergency plan and communicated the facts to the competent authorities (…) the very night of the ship’s accident”.
Four Repsol officials, including the company’s Peruvian president, Jaime Fernández-Cuesta, have been banned from leaving the country while a state prosecutor investigates whether the oil company properly maintained its undersea pipeline system. sailors. 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 triggered the spill, it later blamed the Mare Doricum, which it says changed position during the oil spill. , allegations that the tanker company has denied.
The ship was seized by Peruvian authorities and the ship’s Italian captain, Giacomo Pisani, was included in the investigation. Pisani alleges there were a series of irregularities in the discharge process and claimed the company’s containment barriers were not long enough.
Assigning blame was further complicated because the Peruvian navy did not issue a tsunami warning after the volcanic eruption in Tonga, unlike neighboring Ecuador and Chile.
As the argument over responsibility for the spill continues, the environmental and social consequences ripple outward. UN special rapporteur on toxic substances and human rights Marcos Orellana, who spent a week in Peru last month, said the slow response from the company and authorities “has worsened 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 rock pools and craggy boulders where they catch crab, octopus, bass and growl.
The fishing stopped abruptly, says Marcelo Muñoz, 60, who has made a living casting a hook and line from the cliff since he was 12. The fish was so plentiful that it could earn over $50 a day selling directly to seaside restaurants serving ceviche to beachgoers in the summer.
Today, Muñoz and nearly 50 other artisanal fishers depend on food donations, which are shared in a “olla comun”a makeshift soup kitchen flanked by rows of empty clapboard restaurants, all deserted during the busiest months of the year.
They are among some 2,000 people who make a living from fishing who have been affected along a 50-mile stretch of coastline, says Juan Carlos Sueiro, director of fisheries for conservation group Oceana Peru. “Businesses associated with the summer months, such as restaurants, umbrellas and transport, have all been abruptly canceled since mid-January and we believe they should also be compensated,” he says.
On Friday the company said it was trying to help around 4,100 people affected by the spill and had distributed 6,599 vouchers worth £100 each to affected families.
There is not enough information to assess the social impacts of oil spills, says Orellana. “This is a huge gap that needs to be filled as people depend on the sea for their sustenance, livelihoods and food.”
The long-term effect on the ecosystem is even more difficult to calculate. While the oil is less visible, the toxic impact remains.
At La Isla Pescadores, a protected marine reserve 37 miles north of Lima and home to nearly 200,000 seabirds, park rangers retrieve between 10 and 20 dead birds from the water every day.
Many initially died because of the oil coating their nostrils, says Giancarlo Inga Díaz, a veterinarian working for Sernanp. “In the days and weeks that follow, the oil ruins the quality of the feathers and they cease to be waterproof. When this happens, animals die of hypothermia.
Others starve because they can no longer dive to fish, says Inga Díaz, or, over time, can poison themselves by ingesting toxins when they use their beaks to clean their feathers. “We believe that this model [of bird deaths] will continue for the long term,” he says.
Repsol estimates the cleanup will cost $65 million. The company paid more than $400,000 in environmental fines, but more is expected.
Pulgar Vidal says Peru’s Environmental Assessment and Enforcement Agency should fine Repsol for the ongoing cleanup and also order the company to “adopt permanent surveillance” for at least least the next five years. “Unfortunately, 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 are hugely damaging in one of the world’s most biodiverse nations, says Pulgar Vidal, adding: “We have the laws, we have good oversight agencies – the problem is the application”.
The global trend toward environmental justice in much of the world, he says, “has not reached Peru’s justice system,” which has a checkered record in enforcing environmental fines.
Orellana says institutions, norms and implementation must be strengthened to deal with ecological incidents so that “the people who are affected, the nature that is affected, can be properly remedied and prevention can be a reality”. .