Brazil battles to contain devastation of four million-litre oil spill

More than 1,600 Brazilian oil and emergency staff have battled all week to contain the devastation caused by the biggest of oil spill of many in the last 25 years, which has been threatening a large area in the southern state of Parana.

Using almost nine kilometres of barriers and scores of vacuum trucks, amongst other equipment, workers are now trying to remove the oil, after halting its progress 60 kilometres downstream from the site of the disaster- a refinery at Araucaria on a tributary of the mighty Iguacu river.

Experts do not believe that the slick will travel further but have erected barriers up to 175 kilometres from the disaster site as a precaution.

The disaster occurred on July 16 at the Getulio Vargas refinery belonging to state giant Petrobras, when a valve is believed to have opened, spewing oil uncontrollably into the tributary. The oil rapidly travelled 10km to the Iguacu, where it became an eight kilometre long slick. The tributary river, the Barigui, currently has two and a half million tonnes of crude in its waters.

Luis Antonio Nunes De Mello, the government’s regional environmental representative, was at the scene on 20 July. “Now comes the hardest part. Now that the oil slick has virtually been stopped, we have to start a clean- up. We have no idea yet about how long it will take or the quantity of fauna, which has perished, but this is three times the size of the Guanabara Bay spill and that area will take 10 years to recover. We believe that this is the biggest ever aquatic disaster in Brazil” he told Edie. He added that he saw dead birds, reptiles and capybara, the world’s largest rodent along the banks of the Iguacu and that about 10,000 local residents were without water. Earlier fears that a large town further downriver would also be without drinking water are diminishing as the spill is contained, according to De Mello ,“ but we cannot rule out the small possibility of the barriers not containing all the slick.”

De Mello said lack of maintenance checks by Petrobras was “almost certainly” to blame, although the results of an official inquiry are not yet available. Petrobras has assumed full responsibility for the spill and is paying the entire costs of the clean-up operation. The company is to be fined the maximum amount possible under Brazilian law for environmental devastation, amounting to about 28 million dollars.

This is Petrobras’ second major oil spill in Brazil in the last six months. In January an underwater oil pipe at a refinery near Rio de Janeiro broke, leaking 1.3 million litres of crude into protected mangrove swamps in Guanabara Bay.

Petrobras said that of the four million litres of escaped crude oil, two-thirds had been contained ‘in the vicinity of the refinery,’ 816,000 litres had been collected by 20 July and 20-30% of the remainder would evaporate naturally.

The company says that this leaves about 300,000 litres in the river ‘which should be cleaned up within 10 days from the leak.’

The President of Petrobras, Henri Philippe Reichstul, described the accident as “a disaster.” Pledging limitless funds for the clean-up he said, “There is absolutely nothing to hide. Petrobras will work with complete transparency and correctness to fight the spill.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie