Venezuela: Gov’t Presents Plan to Clean Up Oil-Contaminated Maracaibo Lake

A team of experts is working alongside the community to decontaminate Maracaibo Lake from waste, microalgae and oil leaking from corroded pipelines.
Oil Minister Pedro Tellechea flew above the lake to examine the large crude slicks. (Archive)

Caracas, August 3, 2023 ( – The Venezuelan government has put in motion an emergency plan to clean and reduce oil spills in Maracaibo Lake, western Zulia state, following alarming reports from the scientific community.

On July 24, President Nicolás Maduro announced the approval of resources to rescue the largest lake in South America, which in recent years has been affected by increasing crude spills from corroded pipelines as well as the proliferation of microalgae called verdigris that release toxins and bad odors as a result of waste, untreated sewage and industrial waters dumped into the lake.“I have received reports about oil spills in Lake Maracaibo and how they have impacted the fishing community and the general [environmental] habitat. With the support of scientists, technicians and ministers, I have created a special plan of attention and recovery,” said Maduro during a speech for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Maracaibo.The task to clean up the lake will be led by the Vice-President for Public Services, Néstor Reverol, Oil Minister Pedro Tellechea and Ecosocialism Minister Josué Lorca. A first meeting took place on Wednesday in the city of Maracaibo to gather proposals and set up work tables with over 300 people, including 105 scientists from universities across the country, popular collectives, fishing committees, NGOs and environmental movements. Zulia’s governor Manuel Rosales, from the opposition A New Era party, and mayors from 21 municipalities also participated in the debates.According to Minister Reverol, the committee set up six lines of action to decontaminate the lake, restore vegetation, and rescue and preserve animal life. “We are not here to promise things that we are not going to fulfill. We are here to make a serious plan.”Although a complete strategy will be presented next week, some steps are already underway. Six out of 48 companies located on the shores of Maracaibo Lake have been shut down for not complying with environmental regulations. Authorities have also begun inspecting and recovering nine out of 27 water treatment plants.Venezuelan authorities will also join forces with the Colombian government to examine and clean 135 rivers that empty in the lake and are shared with the neighboring country.For its part, state oil company PDVSA has presented a plan to prevent future oil spills, stating that this would be a priority in the overall strategy. On Wednesday, Reverol and Oil Minister and PDVSA president Pedro Tellechea flew on a helicopter over the lake to examine the crude pollution that has become visible on the water surface and its shores.With an area of 13,000 square kilometers, Lake Maracaibo is the largest in South America and is home to around 145 species of fish and some 200 kilometers of mangrove along its shores. It is located in a historically important oil-producing region, containing around 15 percent of Venezuela’s crude reserves.Although Venezuelan authorities have stopped releasing data regarding oil spills since 2016, several environmental organizations have published estimates by analyzing satellite images of Maracaibo Lake and carrying out on-the-ground investigations.According to reports, the lake has around 28,000 kilometers of oil pipelines connecting refineries and storage centers from Zulia and Falcón states, but over 22,000 kilometers of the pipes are currently inactive and some have corroded, causing the remaining crude to leak out over time.In August 2022, the Venezuelan Observatory of Environmental Human Rights (OVDHA) estimated that some 1,000 barrels of crude were being discharged daily into the lake from the corroded pipelines as well as decaying storage tanks and other damaged infrastructure.The Observatory counted 199 oil spills between 2016 and 2021 while another ecological organization reported 86 in 2022. A study by the Venezuelan Academy of Sciences added that approximately 200,000 oil barrels contaminated land and water between 2020 and 2021. The majority of the spills happened in Maracaibo Lake.The local fishing community, which has around 10 thousand people, has likewise denounced finding crude coating the shoreline and damaging their nets as well as significantly decreasing sea-life populations. Some investigations have found high levels of vanadium and lead in fish, which are the metals most commonly found in oil, while the water has tested positive for sulfur, fluoride, nitrogen and detergents.Venezuela’s oil infrastructure has heavily deteriorated after years of disinvestment and lack of maintenance work under an economic crisis aggravated by US sanctions. Since 2017, Washington’s measures have made it nearly impossible to secure much-needed foreign capital as well as acquired parts due to a phenomenon known as “overcompliance” whereby firms refuse to do business with Caracas due to fear of being targeted by secondary sanctions.Furthermore, a brain drain inside the Venezuelan oil industry due to migration has reduced preventive tasks increasing the frequency of malfunctions and oil spills.