Ecuador, Peru: oil spills foul Pacific coast, Amazon

Ecuador’s second-largest oil pipeline burst on April 8, but exports will not be affected, the Energy Ministry emphasized. The 475-kilometer Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline has a capacity of up to 450,000 barrels per day, linking oil fields in the eastern Sucumbios province to the Pacific coast. The Energy Ministry said that around 5,500 barrels of crude were spilled when the OCP broke, and that the pipeline suspended operations following the incident. The rupture occurred in Esmeraldas province, near where the pipeline meets the Pacific. Several local campesino plots were fouled. The OCP is controlled by a consortium including Spain’s Repsol-YPF, the French Perenco and Brazil’s Petrobras. The country’s largest pipeline, the SOTE, transports crude for paratstatal Petroamazonas, which aims to produce an average 325,000 bpd this year. (Reuters, El Comercio, Quito, April 8) Ecuador has just announced plans for a major new thrust of oil development in the Amazon, with Chinese companies in the lead.

Late last month, Peru’s government declared a state of emergency in the Pastaza Basin near the Ecuador border, where indigenous groups have been complaining for years about the pollution from the operation pf Argentina-based Pluspetrol. In declaring the emergency, Peru’s Environment Ministry said the contamination included high levels of lead, barium and chromium as well as petroleum-related compounds. The region is inhabited mostly by the Quichua and Ashuar indigenous peoples, who are primarily hunter-gatherers.

The fields have been operated for some 12 years by Pluspetrol, the country’s biggest oil and gas producer, and it will be obliged to clean up the contamination, said Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar Vidal. The government also said the field’s previous operator, Occidental Petroleum, had not adequately remediated contamination either. It began drilling there in 1971; Pluspetrol took over in 2001.

The 90-day emergency decree orders immediate action to reduce the risk of contamination to the local population. It follows an $11 million fine levied against Pluspetrol in January. “We know that there has been bad environmental behavior by the company,” Pulgar-Vidal said of Pluspetrol in a radio interview. “If indeed at some point remediation was done, it was not done adequately…”

The president of the Quichua Federation of Pastaza, Sixto Shapiama, hailed the emergency as “a great achievement because for many years, decades, the government never wanted to see the reality.” The area has for decades seen “constant [oil] spills,” said Shapiama from the Amazonian city of Iquitos, adding that “the sediment at the bottom of the river is completely contaminated.”

A British activist who has worked with the affected indigenous peoples, Paul McAuley, told the Associated Press in 2010 he was astounded word of the contamination had hardly spread outside the jungle. He said not just the Pastaza, but two other river basins where Pluspetrol has oil fields, are contaminated—the Corrientes and Tigre. McAuley, a lay activist with La Salle Christian Brothers, founded the Loreto Environmental Network in 2004 to support the indigenous groups in th region. In 2010, Peru’s government tried to expel McAuley, alleging he was inciting unrest. His expulsion, challenged by the Catholic Church and Amnesty International, was eventually halted by a judge. (AP, March 26)