Observers

The oil spill that contaminated picturesque beaches and waters around Mauritius island in the Indian Ocean made international headlines recently, but half a world away, a similarly devastating catastrophe is receiving much less coverage. Black, oil-polluted waves have been rolling onto coasts in northwestern Venezuela since late July. Unlike in Mauritius where an oil tanker ran aground, the situation in Venezuela isn’t related to a single incident. Instead, it is the result of frequent oil spills caused by a faulty system that includes crumbling oil facilities, a lack of trained staff, and the disregard of regulations.

The first reports of the oil-contaminated water appeared on social media and the Venezualan media around August 1. 
The spilled oil washed up on beaches in Boca de Aroa and Tucacas. These photos were posted online on August 2 by the Fundación Azul Ambientalistas, an environmental organisation.
 
It took three days for the Ministry of Ecosocialism to recognise the "presence of oil and possible by-products” in the area and said that teams had already started a clean-up using oil absorbent booms to limit the progression of the spill. On August 10, vice-minister for Ecosocialism Josué Lorca said that teams were in the process of cleaning 15 kilometres of shorelines.
These photos show teams working to contain the spread of oil. They were published online on August 12 by someone who went to the affected area.
One of the most affected places is Morrocoy National Park, known for its heavenly beaches and rich ecosystem, including mangroves and coral reefs. There are also many sea turtles. In Falcón state, the oil has reached the wildlife refuge in Cuare, which is home to many bird species.
Teams clean up mangroves in Morrocoy National Park. The video was posted on August 11 by a social media user who visited the affected area.
 
Oil coats these mangroves in Morrocoy National Park. These photos were published on August 15 by the Fundación Azul Ambientalistas.
Satellite images used to determine the origin of the oil

For the time being, neither the government nor the state oil company PDVSA have made any statements on the origins of the oil, its scale or even the type of fuel that has leaked into the ocean. Their silence has been condemned by both environmental organisations and the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

However, Eduardo Klein, a scientist at Simón Bolívar University, said there is “no doubt” about the origin of the oil. On August 9, he posted two satellite images on Twitter showing the zone in Carabobo state where the El Palito refinery, which is controlled by state oil company PDVSA, is located. While the image taken on July 19 looks normal, the image taken on July 22 shows a large black stain pooling around the refinery.
'Satellite images of the El Palito refinery and surrounding areas. There is no doubt about the origin of the leak,' Klein posted on August 9.
 
Two days later, Klein shared another satellite image taken on July 26. It also shows a large black mass around the El Palito refinery.
'Image from July 26: 260km2 of oil spilled in the sea by the El Palito refinery [...],' reads a post by Eduardo Klein on August 11.

Moreover, a second leak that appears to originate from the same refinery was spotted in August in the satellite image below.
'A second spill is getting closer to Morrocoy. [...] Image Sentinel S2A from Monday, August 10 at 11am,' posted Eduardo Klein on August 10.
 
According to Klein’s estimates, around 22,000 barrels of oil have leaked into the ocean from the refinery, a number that has been picked up by the Venezuelan Ecological Society and various media outlets. This is actually more than in Mauritius, where about 1,000 tons of fuel – equivalent to 7,600 barrels – have spilled from the Japanese ship the Wakashio into the waters since late July.
In this tweet, Eduardo Klein compares the size of the oil spills in Venezuela and Mauritius.

It’s not only satellite images that support the hypothesis that the oil spill originated from the El Palito refinery.

"If you consider the direction of the currents and the area where the oil has reached, it also lines up,” says Ausberto Quero, the president of the Commission for the Environment at the Centre for Engineers in Zulia state, who spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team.

Several local media outlets also reported on oil leaks from the refinery around July 21, as well as multiple incidents over the past few months including power outages, problems with the turbines, gas leaks and petrol, and even explosions.

'For years, the state oil company PDVSA has not respected regulations on industrial security and the environment'

Iván Freites is the secretary of professionals and technicians at the Federation for Venezuelan Oil Workers.

Accidents that cause harm to the environment happen all the time at Venezuelan oil infrastructures. They occur in every state in the country; it’s become normal. [According to environmental group Fundación Azul Ambientalistas, at least 70 percent the country’s coastline has been affected by oil spills.] It’s because the infrastructure is completely destroyed [Due to a lack of upkeep and investment]. But for the past 10 years, neither the government nor PDVSA have kept an official record of these accidents. So we find out about them from the workers or on social media.

There are never investigations when accidents do happen, even though this is required by law. Those responsible aren’t held accountable even when there are really serious accidents, like in 2012 when an oil spill affected the Guarapiche River, polluting the water used by residents, or after the explosion of the Amuay refinery, which caused about 50 deaths. For years, the state oil company PDVSA hasn’t been respecting regulations on industrial security and the environment.

'There are fewer and fewer workers in the oil sector'

The increase in accidents is also tied to the fact that there are fewer and fewer workers in the oil sector, especially qualified personnel. Many of them have left the sector, or even the country. We estimated that there are currently at least 2,000 employees in the operational and administrative sectors of the PDVSA, even though there were 60 to 70,000 before 2012. [The FRANCE 24 Observers team wasn’t able to verify these numbers in an independent manner. Quero estimated that the number of PDVSA employees has dropped from 80,000 to 10,000 people over the past 20 years.]

That’s likely because the monthly salary is around $1.25, which is extremely low. [This is roughly the minimum wage in Venezuela.] Moreover, working conditions have completely deteriorated: the workers don’t have personal protective equipment, there is no more oil for the vehicles…

PDVSA has increased their number of employees from 43,000 to 143,000 over the past 20 years, but these are just office jobs, created for those close to the government [Especially soldiers, according to Serge Ollivier, a historian and Venezuela specialist].

For years, oil spills have affected Maracaibo Lake in Zulia state. These photos were posted on August 10.
Oil spills have also reached Anzoátegui state. Photos posted on August 7.

Though Venezuela has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, the oil sector has collapsed over the past few years. Lack of investment, corruption, US sanctions and a drop in crude oil prices have caused barrel production to decrease massively.

 
This article was written by Chloé Lauvergnier.