After Amazon fires, Brazil now faces oil spill crisis

Mysterious oil slicks have spread across 2,000 kilometres of the country’s northern coast since September, contaminating beaches and killing wildlife

By Robson Rodrigues
Published: Friday 11 October 2019
Oil stain on Alagoas State Beach. Photo: Projeto Praia Limpa

Thick and viscous oil debris has contaminated 139 locations spread over 2,000 kilometres across nine Brazilian states since early-September, according to the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA).

This is the largest extended environmental accident recorded in the country.

Investigations have confirmed that the material is crude oil. To date, more than 135 tonnes have been collected from the Brazilian coast, which is the equivalent of over 500 barrels of oil.

Investigators are still uncertain about how the disaster happened in the first place. Among the hypotheses being investigated by the Brazilian navy are the sinking or accidental oil spill from a ship passing along the Brazilian coast.

On the other hand, the possibilities of underground oil leakage or tank washing in ships are considered remote.

According to Petrobras, a Brazilian state oil company that produces oil on the high seas, the crude was not Brazilian.

“It is not Brazilian oil. We collected 23 samples. Our research centre performed biochemical analysis and came to the conclusion that the material was not produced or marketed by Petrobras,” Petrobras President Roberto Castello Branco, said.

Brazil’s environment minister Ricardo Salles stressed the difficulty in solving the problem as the source of the leak was unknown. Investigations by the navy and Petrobras found the crude had the same ‘signature’ as Venezuelan oil found in spots that spread across the sea.

“The oil is probably coming from Venezuela, as the Petrobras study said. It is oil that came from a foreign ship that was apparently sailing near the Brazilian coast,” Salles said.

Environmental crime

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has said he does not rule out criminal action. “It could be something criminal, it could be an accidental leak, it could be a wrecked ship too. We have on the radar a country that may be the origin of oil,” he said, without giving details.

The navy said it had five ships and one aircraft to patrol the region for the causes of the leak. Fines for such environmental crimes can exceed more than $12 million.

Authorities are still unable to estimate the actual impact of the oil spill, but some affected beaches are among the most sought-after destinations by tourists, and the arrival of oil could have an economic impact on the region, early in the high season.

Fauna and Flora

Many marine animals in the area such as turtles, dolphins and birds have been found covered by a dense black layer. Many were rescued, but most died. Crustacean species are also dying from having their habitat invaded by the oil.

The oil reached the coast of the state of Bahia in regions considered a sea turtle nursery, where the Tamar Project acts to preserve endangered marine species.

As a result, environmentalists have suspended the release of more than 600 baby turtles at sea because of the risk of contamination.

The coastal ecosystem of north-eastern Brazil is very fragile, with mangroves, rocky coves and coral reefs. Environmental impact analysis already indicates that food chain organisms have been contaminated, with transfer of the substances to larger marine animals without immediate effect. Biologists fear it will affect whale breeding.

IBAMA and the federal government were unable to report the size of the oil slick near the Brazilian coast. The state of Sergipe has declared an emergency and asked residents not to use the beaches and not to come in contact with the oil.

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