Mérida, June 23rd 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – The Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA, launched its cleanup of a small oil spill in Lake Maracaibo this week, while a group of local fisher associations said they plan to take the company to court over the damages.
150 workers from PDVSA’s environment department have been working with local communities over the past week to clean the oil that collected on the eastern shore of the lake since the spill was first detected by local fishers on June 2nd.
PDVSA Environment Director Ramiro Ramirez, who is leading the cleanup effort, said the exact cause of the spill has not been determined.
Ramirez hypothesized that an electricity failure caused a temporary leak somewhere in the network of thousands of kilometers of piping and tens of thousands of electric lines that make up the company’s operations in the lake’s basin, which holds Venezuela’s largest tapped reserves of oil.
“Many of the pipes are more than 40 years old,” said Ramirez. “Even the process of maintenance and replacement itself could cause small leaks.”
Jorge Pedroza, the president of the Institute for the Control and Conservation of Lake Maracaibo (ICLAM), which is ascribed to the Environment Ministry, did not rule out the possibility that the spill was caused by sabotage.
“Our first impression was that a boat had dropped an oil shipment, but this could also be the product of sabotage,” said Pedroza. “[The opposition] wants to create a matrix of negative opinion about the government’s environmental policy in this electoral period,” he said, referring to Venezuela’s National Assembly elections, which are scheduled for September.
In an interview with the Maracaibo-based newspaper Panorama on Tuesday, Ramirez said there is still work to be done. “We are finishing the work of cleaning up the coasts, because of the leaks. The organized communities are here. There is still work to be done. The next phase is the recollection of the bags with the contaminated material. We pick up oil, garbage, plants swept up by the water,” said Ramirez, who was on the shores participating in the cleanup.
The Environment Commission of the National Assembly discussed the spill today and is planning to approve a budget for the cleanup, as well as a new pilot plan for the conservation of Maracaibo Lake, according to Julio Garcia, the president of the commission.
The commission collected information about the spill from the National Parks Institute, Attorney General’s Office, Socialist Institute for Fishing, National Institute for Water Spaces, Zulia State Environmental Directorate, PDVSA, and ICLAM, said Garcia.
Meanwhile, four local fishers’ associations threatened to block a major shipping channel on the lake if the government does not step up its efforts to clean up the spill and prevent another one from occurring.
The four associations, Ecos del Zulia, Playa Macuto, Santa Rosa de Agua, and Puerto Caballo, announced that they will file legal claims against PDVSA and the Environment Ministry for the lost business and other damages caused by the spill, according to fishers union representative Edgar Luzardo.
Maracaibo Lake is South America’s largest lake. It suffers severe environmental damage as a result of decades of oil and oil-related industry, the proliferation of duckweed on the lake’s surface, contaminative runoff from surrounding agricultural lands, and human waste dumping. The local communities and fishers have also suffered displacement, pollution-related sickness, and a downturn in their business.