Outrage in Peru following devastating Repsol oil spill

The devastating oil spill has polluted 1.7 million square meters of soil and 1.2 million square meters of ocean, tarred 21 beaches on Peru’s Pacific coast, and killed a vast variety of marine wildlife, besides incurring huge economic losses to fishing and tourism industries

January 25, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
Clean up operation under way in the coastal territories affected by the oil spill in the Ventanilla sea on January 20. Photo: Peruvian President’s Office /Twitter

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, on January 24, assured that his administration will take all necessary actions to ensure that Spanish transnational company Repsol “comply with its criminal, civil and administrative responsibilities” for the oil spill in the Ventanilla sea last week. During a meeting with artisanal fishermen of the Chorrillos district affected by the spill, the head of state also recalled that “it is not the first time that Repsol has done this to the country,” and stressed that “it must be taken into account for future dealings that this company has to do with the State.”

Castillo also criticized the mainstream media for ignoring one of the largest oil environmental disasters in Peru, because it is the responsibility of a corporate company. “If this contamination were from the government, we would be in the pages (of newspapers) every day, on the screens (of television), but since it is the responsibility of these companies that are on the other side (right-wing), there is an absolute silence,” he stated.

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo visited the coastal territories affected by the oil spill in the Ventanilla sea on January 20. Photo: Peruvian President’s Office /Twitter

The president assured that his government defends the sea space that corresponds to the population of artisanal fishermen and will not allow it to be abused. In this regard, he announced that the National Fisheries Development Fund (FONDEPES) will be strengthened. He said that in the next session of the council of ministers “we will make the head of economy and finance scratch the pot to give greater opportunities to artisanal fishermen.”

Earlier on January 24, Prime Minister Mirtha Vásquez reported that the government was reviewing the contracts with Repsol to assess sanctions against its La Pampilla refinery for the disastrous spill. Vásquez said that some political leaders were calling on the government to suspend operations at La Pampilla’s facilities, cancel its contract or even expropriate it over the disaster, but emphasized that options were still being looked at.

“We are evaluating the legal aspects. We still cannot say whether their license is going to be suspended. Any company that carries out risky operations must assume responsibility for damages and the indemnity. They cannot argue that they are not responsible. They are, and therefore they have to think about the consequences,” she said in an interview with local radio station RPP.

Last week, environment minister Rubén Ramírez said that Repsol would face a fine of about 34 million USD. Ramírez informed that in addition to the fine, the company would have to pay for the clean-up operations and the compensation to hundreds of fishermen, hoteliers and restaurateurs who have lost income because of the disaster.

The oil spill

The massive spill of 6,000 barrels of crude oil occurred on January 15 when an Italian-flagged tanker Mare Doricum was unloading at Repsol’s La Pampilla refinery, situated 30km north of the capital Lima. Repsol blamed high waves triggered by the volcanic eruption in Tonga over a week ago for the incident, and denied claims of negligence. However, the Peruvian Navy stated that “the waves had nothing to do with the rupture of the oil infrastructure that preceded the spill,” reported El Comercio, adding that the navy technicians are conducting an in-depth investigation into what happened.

The devastating oil spill has polluted 1.7 million square meters of soil and 1.2 million square meters of ocean, tarred 21 beaches in four municipalities on Peru’s Pacific coast, and killed a vast variety of marine wildlife, besides incurring huge economic losses to fishing and tourism industries. Hundreds of dead fish, seals, and birds have washed up on the shore covered in oil. The spill has also endangered the ecosystem of two protected areas: the Islotes de Pescadores and the Zona Reservada Ancón.

President Pedro Castillo declared an environmental emergency after the oil spill. Photo: Peruvian President’s Office /Twitter

After visiting the affected areas in the Callao province on January 20, President Castillo described it as “one of the biggest ecocides ever on our coasts and seas.” He vowed to “sanction those responsible for the damage that tragically affects flora and fauna,” and stressed that his administration would never tolerate the corporate actions that “trample our ecosystems and the honor of our people with impunity.”

Government actions

On January 19, the day oil residue reached two beaches on the country’s Pacific coast, the Peruvian government condemned the slow response of the company, which apparently did not have a contingency plan in case of spills at the refinery. PM Vásquez said that Repsol misled authorities when it spoke of a minor spill of less than a barrel and did not issue public warnings so that the coastal population could take protective actions. As a quick response, the same day, the government formed a crisis committee, made up of the ministries of the environment, agriculture, defense, production, energy, and foreign affairs, to address and respond to the disaster in an organized manner.

On January 20, foreign minister Óscar Maúrtua requested technical support from international organizations, such as the Permanent Commission for the South Pacific (CPPS) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), to deal with the catastrophe. The same day, the Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into the alleged crime of environmental pollution near marine reserves against Repsol.

The same day, President Castillo declared national climate emergency and promulgated a supreme decree, prohibiting deforestation, indiscriminate use of aquifers, and other acts that are detrimental to nature, while promoting recycling, and the establishment of a low-carbon economy, among other measures to preserve natural resources and ecosystems.

On January 22, the government declared a 90-day environmental emergency in the affected coastal territories to guarantee sustainable management of the recovery work.

On January 24, a group of nine experts from the UN arrived in Peru to help address and mitigate the damage caused by the oil spill. The team will carry out an analysis of the social and environmental impacts of the disaster, and will support the authorities to manage and coordinate their response.

Citizen protests

During the weekend, on January 22 and 23, hundreds of Peruvians took to the streets in protest against Repsol, accusing it of “ecocide” and demanding it take responsibility for the ecological disaster.

On January 22, thousands of fishermen from the Ancón municipality marched through the streets of the municipality demanding that the company compensate them for the damage to the beaches, the sea, the fauna, and the flora that will prevent them from earning a living for a long time, due to pollution.

Meanwhile, a group of environmentalists staged sit-ins in front of the Spanish Embassy and the Repsol’s office in Lima, demanding that the transnational company comply with its obligations to the country, to the Peruvian people, and nature.

On January 23 once again, hundreds of citizens marched to the La Pampilla refinery in the Ventanilla municipality and demonstrated outside its gates demanding a speedy cleaning process of the affected areas and remediation of the contamination. The protesters highlighted that in 2013, Repsol was involved in another oil spill of a smaller volume, and was fined for not controlling or mitigating the damage.

The same night, Repsol’s head in Peru, Jaime Fernández-Cuesta, on national television admitted that the refinery could have reacted faster, but said that only the day after the spill they learned the full magnitude of the disaster. He insisted that a period of 10 days, given by the government, for the clean-up of the directly affected area is insufficient, and demanded that it be extended until the end of February. On behalf of the company, he regretted “not having adequately communicated” everything, but didn’t accept responsibility.

Meanwhile, the local press revealed that since 2015, Reposol incurred 32 environmental violations, but was only fined for three, of which only one was paid in full, according to the record of the Environmental Assessment and Enforcement Agency (OEFA).

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