Communities brace for impact of Peruvian oil spill|Video

Residents who helped block the spill’s advance the night of June 24 say they saw oil several kilometers down the ravine below the point where the Northern Peruvian Pipeline broke.

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Petroperú has estimated the spill at 447 barrels, while the government’s environmental oversight body has put it at 600 barrels.

Three days after an oil spill was reported on their land, residents of the small riverside community of Barranca, in northeastern Peru, worry about environmental impacts while also fearing that they may be sidelined from cleanup jobs.

Residents who helped block the spill’s advance the night of June 24 say they saw oil several kilometers down the ravine below the point where the Northern Peruvian Pipeline broke. They say rain washed some of the oil out of the ravine and into a palm swamp.

In press releases, Petroperú, the state-run oil company that operates the pipeline, has denied that the oil has affected any bodies of water.

The spill was first noticed on June 23 by a local man who was crossing the ravine downhill from the point where the pipeline was leaking and saw oil in the water, according to residents. It was reported to government officials on the afternoon of June 24, and Petroperú personnel arrived that evening to seek the source of the leak.

The company has estimated the spill at 447 barrels, while the government’s environmental oversight body has put it at 600 barrels.

The company hired about 20 community members who worked through the night erecting barriers, according to Juber Dóñez, lieutenant governor of the community, who complained that the men are still awaiting payment.

Dóñez said residents were worried that “there is no place to fish”. The greatest concern, however, seemed to be that contractors working with Petroperú on the cleanup were bringing workers from elsewhere instead of hiring local residents.

Barriers built to slop the oil spill from spreading. Photo by Barbara Fraser.

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At a meeting June 27 with a Petroperú community relations representative, village leaders asked about jobs, and also requested items such as an electricity generator for the community, an outboard motor and assistance for the local school, according to minutes from that session.

Later that day, members of the Marañón Defense Front (Frente de Defensa del Marañón), a grassroots group based in the nearby provincial capital of San Lorenzo, and a provincial councilman made the hour-long hike along muddy trails from Barranca to the spill site.

At the point where the leak occurred, the pipeline was under about two meters of earth. Trenches around the broken section had been covered with blue plastic and surrounded with yellow tape printed with a “danger” warning.

The sharp smell of oil hung in the air and crude oil stained vegetation downhill and pooled behind a barrier. Floating booms had been placed in the stream below to catch oil that passed the barrier.

Nearby, sacks of oily debris were piled beside a storage pool filled with recovered oil. That area was also covered with blue plastic.

When the group returned from the site, village leaders called an open-air community assembly, which drew about 150 people to the central plaza.

Roy López, who heads the defense front, pledged his group’s support to Barranca and urged residents to insist on protective gear and prompt payment for workers. An initial report from local health authorities noted that workers at the site lacked appropriate safety equipment.

At the assembly, residents decided to stage a protest the next day at the spill site to press their demands. On the morning of the June 28, however, Germán Velásquez, president of Petroperú, arrived in the community and signed an agreement that the company’s contractors would give priority to Barranca residents in hiring for jobs, and would provide unspecified food and water aid.

Later that day, the two contracting companies handling cleanup at the site began hiring the first group of 100 workers, saying they would start work the next day.

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The leak in Barranca is the third major pipeline spill this year along the aging pipeline that carries crude from Peru’s oldest Amazonian oil fields across the Andes Mountains to the Pacific Coast.

Along the route, the pipeline passes through the territory of various riverside communities, many of them indigenous.

People in the region have a complicated relationship with the oil industry. Peru’s Environmental Evaluation and Oversight Agency (OEFA) has a list of dozens of contaminated sites in oil fields and along the pipeline route, and indigenous organizations have demanded remediation of the sites and compensation for damages.

Residents also worry about water pollution and possible accumulation of toxics in the fish they eat, especially since a government agency found lead and cadmium above maximum allowable levels in fish caught near the sites of spills that occurred in January and February.

Protest is often muted, however, because oil companies are one of the few sources of steady jobs in the area. They also often provide other benefits, such as transportation in medical emergencies, as the villages are far from health-care facilities.

In communities where people depend mainly on subsistence farming and fishing, along with sporadic day labor that pays just a few dollars a day, the pipeline spills in recent years have brought a windfall along with the environmental concerns.

Laborers working along the Chiriaco and Morona rivers, where spills occurred earlier this year, earn about $45 a day for a six-day work week. In the Kukama indigenous village of Cuninico, in the lower Marañón valley, where the pipeline leaked about 2,000 barrels in 2014, many residents used their daily wages of $20 to rebuild or expand their wood-frame houses and replace palm-thatch roofs with tin.

But prices rose with the influx of cash and did not return to their original levels after the cleanup ended and the jobs disappeared, according to village president Galo Vásquez. Villagers who depended on fishing for a livelihood before the spill catch fewer fish now, and buyers have avoided Cuninico since the spill occurred, Vásquez said.

At the evening assembly in Barranca’s plaza, Andy Muñoz of the defense front’s technical committee spoke to residents about environmental impacts of the spill.

Petroperú should ask permission before cutting trees to build camps and walkways and should compensate the community for the timber, said Muñoz, a forestry engineer.

He also warned that impacts on wildlife could work their way up the food chain to humans. “If you hunt animals, what water has that animal been drinking?” he asked.

By Barbara Fraser | news.mongabay.com

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