For the past two months, the Northeast of Brazil has been battling a massive oil spill. Since the first reports, over 250 locations—and at least 14 conservation units—across 2,500 kilometers of the country’s coastal line have been affected. The main questions around the case remain unanswered, such as who is responsible, how much oil has been spilled, and where the oil comes from. Without those answers, it is also impossible to assess the extent of the environmental damage the disaster will cause in the future.
The region’s economy has also been hit hard. The government issued a decree forbidding lobster and shrimp fishing between November 1 and December 31, which is set to disrupt a production chain that involves fishermen, transportation companies, restaurants, and hotels. During this time, the federal administration will compensate local fishermen.
Almost as notable as the extent of the disaster—the widest-spread oil spill on Brazilian record—is the government’s response (or lack thereof). A new report by Brazil’s environmental agency (Ibama), released by Globo, lists a series of mistakes and screwups committed by the federal administration in dealing with the oil spill. The entire process was more improvised than it should have been—and federal officials have played a secondary role in the cleanup of shores, as Maria Martha Bruno reported.
The plan that was never used
Since 2013, Brazil has had a protocol to deal with sizeable oil spills on its waters. It establishes a series of actions for the federal government to take—in association with local administrations—giving the structure, methods, and financial organization to allow for a swift and effective response. That plan, however, wasn’t put into action.
In fairness, previous administrations shoulder a part of the blame. After the contingency plan was approved, the government should have published a manual of guidelines with step-by-step instructions on how to act in case of a significant spill. That never happened—and administrators might be lost on where to start.
However, there are plenty of studies in Brazil about our coast’s exposure to oil spills and the risks associated with them. It was possible to quickly determine which areas should be protected in a more urgent manner.
The worst mistakes in containing the oil spill
Enforcing the contingency plan would not have eliminated the problematic oil spill. It could have, however, minimized the devastating consequences it will have. Here is where the government dropped the ball:
Lack of communication
On August 30, tourists began calling the environmental office in Conde, a municipality in the state of Paraíba, just 30 kilometers away from the local capital of João Pessoa. Municipality officials claim they contacted federal agencies immediately but received no response. “It took them too much time to give this issue the proper attention,” said Vesjudith Moreira, Conde’s environment secretary.
Furthermore, the report exposes a “gag order” imposed by the Environment Ministry on Ibama, which is not allowed to inform the press of alerts even in critical situations. That measure was enforced after the Jair Bolsonaro administration faced tremendous heat following alerts of rises in Amazon fires earlier this year.
Lack of action
Even after the government began to act, the lack of communication made things disorderly. The Navy was first alerted about the spill on September 2. However, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles only informed other ministries that Navy officials would coordinate a contingency plan on October 11—that is, 43 days after the first reports of oil present on the shores of Paraíba. The report also says that Petrobras refused to make more professionals available to remove the oil from contaminated beaches.
Moreover, the Environment Ministry shut down committees responsible for monitoring oil-related incidents—and ignored a memo alerting to the risks of the move. A member of the ministry solicited “urgent and necessary measures” to reestablish the committees.
Tourism Minister Marcelo Antônio visited a beach in the state of Pernambuco—got his feet and hands wet and declared the waters were “cleared for bathing”—despite the state environmental agency labeling it “unfit”. Currents continued to bring more oil to the shores.
Members of the government also made insinuations about the potential culprits of the oil spill—without any shred of evidence. Mr. Salles suggested that Greenpeace could be behind the incident, while President Bolsonaro talked about the possibility of Venezuela being responsible as a form of “environmental terrorism.” Experts have indeed said that the oil has origins in Venezuela—but there’s no hint that the spill was intentional. Moreover, it is odd to imagine a country so engulfed in crisis literally throwing away crude oil.
The mission to solve the oil spill crisis is also hampered by other problems—not necessarily connected to how the government has acted. Last week, a Petrobras executive declared the company doesn’t have the necessary equipment to properly act in a crisis.
That lack of preparation is even more evident when we analyze the work being done by volunteers. Most have removed oil stains without safety equipment, exposing themselves to the toxicity of crude oil. Even worse, many are using benzine, kerosene, and gasoline to remove the substance from their skin—which, according to Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, is even more toxic than oil.