The never-ending oil spill crisis remains a mystery

. Aug 30, 2020
oil spill northeast Cabo de São Agostinho beach, in Pernambuco. Photo: Salve Maracaípe

The crisis began on August 30, 2019. That morning, the first oil stain was spotted on a beach in the northeastern state of Paraíba. Soon, more crude oil splotches would be found in other coastal areas — in a mystery that quickly became the most widespread environmental disaster in Brazilian history. Over 1,000 beaches, mangroves, and rivers in hundreds of municipalities — stretching over 2,000 kilometers of Brazil’s coastline — were swallowed up by at least 5,000 tons of thick fragments of crude oil sludge. The local tourism industry was wrecked, while hundreds of thousands of fishermen lost most of their income.

One year later, Brazilian authorities still have no idea of who was responsible for the spill.

</p> <p>The Brazilian Navy concluded its investigation on the case this week, with its final verdict limited to affirming that the oil traveled from an area roughly 700 kilometers out to sea before eaching the Brazilian coast. Investigators have also determined that the oil came from Venezuela, but the spill wasn&#8217;t necessarily the responsibility of a ship or company from Brazil&#8217;s northern neighbor.</p> <p>&#8220;This is a highly complex, unprecedented case in Brazilian history. Many hypotheses are considered, including a shipwreck or an accidental spill. At the moment, the possibilities of petrol leaks from Brazilian waters and pollution caused by the cleaning of tanks of vessels in our waters are remote, due to the volume of material collected,&#8221; said the Navy, in a statement that provides no detail whatsoever about its findings (or lack thereof).</p> <p>In the months following the spill, Brazilian authorities voiced many theories, but were unable to prove any of them.</p> <p>Back in November 2020, the Federal Police attributed the disaster to a leak suffered by <a href="">Greek oil tanker Bouboulina</a>. Marshals believed the leak started between July 28 and 29, somewhere around 730 kilometers from the coast of Paraíba state. After reportedly analyzing 826 satellite images, they said Bouboulina was the only ship that crossed the suspected area at the believed time of the spill. Just a month later, however, the Brazilian Environmental Agency (Ibama) said the federal police had based their analysis on a misleading report.</p> <p>At the time, researchers from the Federal University of Alagoas suggested the spill was linked to a “ghost ship,” that is, a vessel sailing with its transponder switched off.</p> <h2>A bungled response from the federal government</h2> <p>During the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, the federal government faces much criticism for not coordinating efforts to contain the spread and offset the economic effects of the crisis. States and municipalities were left to their own devices, and each local government chose its own solution — usually quite different from neighboring cities, which undermines the response.</p> <p>The same thing happened after the oil crisis. President Jair Bolsonaro only ordered an investigation into the spill on October 5, over a month after the first stains appeared. On September 26, <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> showed the oil had already <a href="">reached 99 beaches</a>.</p> <p>Moreover, the Environment Ministry never coordinated with states and municipalities — as it should, according to the <a href="">National Contingency Plan</a>, a set of guidelines dictating the response to an unexpected oil disaster in Brazilian waters. Each city was responsible for removing and storing the oil, often done in an <a href="">improvised</a>, amateurish way. Many locals did so at their own risk, without any protective gear.</p> <p>In smaller cities, environmental activists identified incidences of irregular disposal and improper storage. One municipality in Bahia, for instance, used an abandoned school as storage for the toxic sludge — while another dumped it in an open-air landfill.</p> <p>President Jair Bolsonaro and Vice President Hamilton Mourão also vented their own unproven theories. The former said Venezuelan authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro purposely spilled the oil, hoping to cause problems for his administration. Meanwhile, Mr. Mourão said the spill was probably an intentional move to help the vessel regain its balance.</p> <p>The bungled response was notwithstanding an expensive one. Brazil&#8217;s state-owned oil giant Petrobras helped authorities to remove the stains from large stretches of the coast —&nbsp;and the government owes BRL 43 million (USD 8 million) as a result.</p> <h2>Long-lasting impacts</h2> <p>The massive oil spill disrupted the lives of at least 350,000 local fishermen, according to a study by the Federal University of Pernambuco. The report mentions a &#8220;collapse&#8221; of the fishing economy, with sales dropping 95 percent in some locations. Fishing is the only source of income for over half of the families in the coastal cities affected by the spill, and they observed a 40-percent drop in their income.</p> <p>Another <a href="">study</a> published on Friday shows just how badly the spill impacted the tourism industry. Seafood restaurants reported losses of 30 percent in revenue —&nbsp;while other establishments saw a 10-percent drop.&nbsp;</p> <p>And that doesn&#8217;t even factor in the impacts of the pandemic, with social isolation halting the in-person economy for months in 2020.</p> <p>The crisis, however, is still not over. Just a week ago, authorities said <a href="">new oil stains appeared</a> in the south of Pernambuco state. According to the local environmental agency, preliminary studies suggest the material is consistent with the 2019 spill. &#8220;The material could be sedimented in sea soil or reefs, and is reaching beaches again due to a series of meteorological factors,&#8221; said the agency, in a statement.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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