Peru wants refinery to pay for oil spill after Tonga volcano erupts

LIMA, Peru — More than two weeks after a botched tanker shipment dumped thousands of barrels of crude oil into the sea off Peru, black waves are still littering the beaches and fingers are still being pointed.

The explanation for what went wrong doesn’t seem any closer to the end than the cleanup itself.

The oil has washed over about 27 miles of the Pacific coast, being blown north by winds to beaches along Peru’s desert coast, leaving behind countless dead fish and sea creatures coated in oil, including locally endangered sea otters and penguins, which live on rocky islands live in two protected marine reserves.

“We’re talking about 10, maybe 20 years for the ecosystem to fully recover,” said Deyvis Huamán, a biologist for Peru’s national park system.

The oil spill happened at the Pampilla refinery operated by the Spanish company Repsol near the Peruvian capital Lima. Its size has grown far beyond initial expectations as the company initially reported only a tiny leak of about seven gallons.

That was off by a factor of ten thousand. As the true extent of the disaster emerged, the Peruvian president stood on an oil-slicked beach and condemned what he called “one of the greatest ecocides on our coast.”

The question now is: who is responsible?

According to Repsol, the Jan. 15 oil spill was caused by powerful ocean waves unleashed by an unusually powerful volcano that erupted thousands of miles away off the island nation of Tonga. It says the event damaged an underwater system of pipes and hoses from which moored oil tankers pump crude oil to its refinery, noting that neighboring countries issued a tsunami warning but Peru did not.

“We didn’t cause the environmental disaster,” a company spokeswoman told Peruvian television in the days after the oil spill.

But this week the government announced it was shutting down all operations at the Repsol refinery, an action the company called “disproportionate and unreasonable”. A prosecutor’s office had already begun investigating whether the company had properly maintained its underwater system of pipes and hoses. And four senior Repsol officials have been barred by law from leaving the country.

“We will hold it accountable,” President Pedro Castillo said at a rally. “We will defend the sea and condemn and sanction the company that pollutes our sea.”

Still, Peruvian investigators say they will also investigate allegations that the Peruvian Navy failed in its duty to issue a tsunami alert. The Navy, which has been criticized by others for not issuing an alert, says it is also conducting its own investigation.

Even some of the most basic facts are disputed – including the conditions of the waters in front of the refinery that day.

While the company cited unusual waves, the captain of the Italian tanker that delivered Brazilian crude to the refinery said the water wasn’t particularly rough and that the ship didn’t collide with any part of the terminal’s infrastructure. The head of a local boating association also said the sea was fairly calm, as did naval officials.

The tanker Mare Doricum, owned by La Fratelli d’Amico Armatori, has been seized by the authorities. The company said it was cooperating with Peruvian authorities, noting that no allegations had been made against its crew.

Although the conditions on that day are disputed, there is no question that parts of Peru, like other nations far from the volcano, were hit by the tsunami.

To the north, two women were swept away by waves attributed to the eruption. And in Callao Bay, where the refinery is located, waves of about 1.5 meters, or about five feet, were being recorded by sea-level monitoring stations around the time Repsol reported the spill, said Francisco Hernandez of the Flanders Marine Institute. That could have “churned up” the water or caused strong underwater currents, he said.

In a statement to The New York Times, Repsol stood firm.

“To the best of our knowledge, this accident was caused by an unforeseen maritime event,” it said. “The ship’s mooring broke due to an unusual sea state, as reported by the captain of the Mare Doricum. Speculation that the sea is calm is at odds with publicly available empirical data from the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, not to mention hundreds of social media posts this afternoon.”

The waves were abnormal. Unforeseen is another matter.

While Peru did not issue an alert, there have been several international tsunami warnings for the region, but neither the Navy nor Repsol have restricted activities.

And although the company went public with the development of its early warning system for oil leaks, it wasn’t until the next day that Repsol dispatched a team of divers to survey conditions underwater. The company says conditions used to be unsafe for divers.

“It’s clear that a number of big mistakes were made,” said Gustavo Navarro, a former La Pampilla manager who is now an energy consultant.

This isn’t Repsol’s first oil spill in Peru. A 2013 leak attributed to a corroded pipeline released an estimated 196 barrels. Fines against the company at the time totaled less than $200,000, but President Castillo’s leftist administration says it will be different this time. Government ministers have promised “drastic” penalties, perhaps more than $50 million, to give an example.

After operations at the refinery halted on Monday, the company said it would work with the government to reopen as soon as possible. It noted that it supplies nearly half of Peru’s fuel and said it would “do its best” to avoid shortages.

The company has also come under fire for its cleanup efforts.

Repsol has offered to hire fishermen and other unemployed people to help, but local news media have reported that workers are being poorly paid and that some have passed out from inhaling the fumes on the oil-soaked beaches.

But with the oil spill taking away their livelihoods, at least for now, many have little choice.

The oil spill came at the height of the summer beach season, and working-class coastal communities dependent on fishing and tourism were hit hardest after an ongoing pandemic-related downturn.

“The restaurants, the cevicherías — nobody eats in them anymore,” said Roberto Zamora, 45, a fisherman in the Ventanilla district, where the refinery is located. “Nobody wants to buy fish, not even fish from the high seas.”

Peru’s tourism officials put the losses at about $52 million, a figure that doesn’t include the impact on fishermen.

Mr Zamora said he hasn’t worked a day since the oil spill first washed “black lava” over local fishing grounds, depriving him not only of his income but also of his family’s main source of protein.

He wants an explanation for what happened, a serious plan for remedy and compensation – and something even more important.

“What we want is respect,” said Mr. Zamora. “And that was a lack of respect for our ocean. It didn’t just affect me. It hasn’t just affected other fishermen. It is an insult to the whole world.”

“They poisoned the sea,” he said.

Raphael Minder and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.

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