Venezuelan Government: Oil Spill under Control

Venezuelan Environmental Minister Alejandro Hitcher has confirmed that the government has managed to contain over 90% of the leaked crude oil which escaped into the Guarapiche River when a pipeline ruptured on the 4th of February.

By Rachael Boothroyd

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The government reports that it has managed to contain over 90% of the leaked oil (ElUniversal)
The government reports that it has managed to contain over 90% of the leaked oil (ElUniversal)
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Caracas, February 19th 2012 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan Environmental Minister Alejandro Hitcher has confirmed that the government has managed to contain over 90% of the leaked crude oil which escaped into the Guarapiche River when a pipeline ruptured on the 4th of February.

In comments made to press agencies last Saturday, Hitcher said that the actions of the national government had managed to avert an ecological disaster in the eastern state of Monagas where the pipeline burst.

“Yes, there was an oil spill in Monagas state, everyone knows that, but thanks to the effective actions of Environment Ministry and the (clean-up) teams, we were able to contain 90% of the spill," said Hitcher.

Venezuelan news agencies report that a pipeline carrying crude oil from Maturin city as part of the government’s Jusepin project burst over 2 weeks ago, with the crude flowing into the adjacent river. Around 2,000 employees from state oil company PDVSA have been deployed to the area in order to help with the clean-up efforts, using absorbent barriers to contain the oil and industrial skimming machines to extract it. Photos of the clean-up operation have provoked concern from observers, who note that some workers have not been provided with adequate protective clothing.

Although the government has not released any figures confirming the exact amount of oil leaked, Dr. Juan Carlos Sánchez, lecturer at Venezuela’s Central University (UCV) and a member of the UN’s panel of experts on climate change, says there would appear to be a “considerable amount”. According to Sanchez, the rupture seems to have been caused by an oversight in preventative maintenance and corrosion of the project’s pipelines.

“Pipelines usually have automated systems which cut off the supply when this type of accident occurs, but in this case it appears that this didn’t happen,” he said.

During the press conference, Environment Minister Hitcher also responded to accusations from opposition press that the oil spill amounted to an environmental disaster, with newspaper El Nacional publishing a photo showing a segment of the blackened river and its surrounding wildlife coated in oil. Hitcher urged the Venezuelan public not to “be deceived” by the “biased” picture or to “echo their lies”, whilst criticising the newspaper for distorting the truth in its coverage.

“There was no environmental disaster in the Guarapiche River, there was an accident, I’ve never tried to play this down, it had an impact, but the damage is perfectly reparable” he said, adding that the newspaper was also under investigation for having falsely reported that Venezuelan police killed a protesting opposition student following last week’s opposition primaries.

Water protests

Protests also broke out in the city of Maturin, in Monagas state, last week in response to the government’s decision to temporarily close down a nearby water purification plant as a result of the spill. According to Venezuelan newspaper Ultimas Noticias the plant, which taps water from the Guarapiche River, currently provides about 80% of Maturin’s water supply.

Throughout last week, protesters blocked roads demanding a quicker solution from government agencies, with some families complaining that they had not had access to water in over a week. Maturin's mayor, Jose Vicente Maicavares, has called for understanding from the local community as the government attempts to deal with the effects of the spill.

“We understand the annoyance, but the only thing we can do is to be patient. Fortunately there were no arrests or damage to property or persons as a result of the protests,” commented Maicavares.

The government is currently implementing a contingency plan to open up an old refinery that captures water from other sources and is distributing water to local communities in cisterns. According to Hitcher, the purification plant should be up and running within the next 10 days.

An investigative commission from Venezuela’s National Assembly has been sent to Monagas in order to supervise the clean-up operation and to investigate the causes of the spill, with PDVSA also confirming that its officials are examining the origins of the rupture.