Pipeline break in Peru poisons water and fish for 10,000, sends 500 indigenous middle and high school students to Catholic sisters

March 5, 2016

Five hundred indigenous middle- and high-school students will arrive in early March at a Catholic-run boarding school in Wachapea, an Awajun village in Peru, but the sisters and staff do not know where they will take baths. The Chiriaco River, where the students usually bathe, play and wash their clothes, turned black on Feb. 10 as oil from a broken pipeline upriver washed downstream during a heavy rain. Although the slick is gone, a tarry residue remains on the soil and plants along the riverbank. “We need information about what lies ahead, about the health precautions we should take, about how long it will be before people can fish again,” said Sister Carmen Gomez, a member of Servants of St. Joseph mission that operates the school. The pipeline break was one of three that occurred in northern Peru between late January and mid-February, bringing to 20 the number of oil spills from the pipeline since 2011, according to Peru’s environmental oversight agency.

Following the extensive and ongoing environmental damage caused when more than 3,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the Chiriaco and Morona rivers, the Peruvian government has declared a state of emergency for 16 communities in the Amazon. The emergency will remain in effect for 60 days, and it will bring together the district of Morona, Datem del Marañon province, and other government agencies to come up with a solution.

The first pipeline burst on January 25 because of a landslide, according to theBBC. It took Petroperu – the company responsible for the spill – three days to patch up the pipeline. There was another rupture on February 3, but the cause is unknown.  Those catastrophic ruptures in Petroperu’s Northern Peruvian Pipeline have threatened the water supply of nearly 10,000 indigenous people, says Amazon Watch.  TeleSUR reports that there was a third oil spill in mid-February.

The devastating spills occurred mere months after Indigenous activists staged massiveprotests against Peru’s oil industry in September.

While PetroPeru works to contain the spill, Suashapea, Pakunts, Chiriaco, Nuevo Progreso, Nazareth and Nuevo Horizonte indigenous communities have been affected. A water quality emergency was issued three weeks after the first rupture. “Fish have died, crocodiles have died, plants have died,” one woman told Canal N. “How are we going to live?”

PetroPeru has disturbingly been accused of using children to clean up the sludge. German Velazquez, the company’s president, has denied these accusations. However, in late February, he was thinking about firing an official who may have let children clean up the oil.

At least one 12-year-old boy reported he was paid 57 cents for every bucket of oil he collected. He was injured and taken to Piura for treatment. Petroperu will cover the boy’s medical bills, EFE reports. Univision adds that children who have been cleaning up the spill have been doing so without the right clothing or tools so that they can remain safe. In 2014, PetroPeru was also accused ofhiring children to clean up a spill.

La República

La República

Waterways flow with black sludge and trees and flowers are rendered nearly unrecognizable by a thick coating of oil in video footage of the spills:

“At least this time,” observed Zegarra, “Petroperu has given Indigenous populations suits to wear for cleaning up oil.”

Petroperu president German Velasquez “denied reports the company paid children to clean up the oil,” reports the Guardian, but then he went on, perhaps damningly, to say that “he was evaluating firing four officials, including one who may have allowed children to collect the crude.”

(Photo: Alessandro Currarino / El Comercio)(Photo: Alessandro Currarino / El Comercio)

“It’s important to note that the spills…are not isolated cases. Similar emergencies have emerged as a result of defects in sections of the pipeline,” the national environmental regulator said, according to the Guardian.

The regulator “ordered Petroperu to replace parts of the pipeline and improve maintenance,” states Reuters. The Guardian reports that Petroperu will face fines of up to $17 million if it is proven that the oil spills have affected the health of locals.

“This environmental disaster is just the latest in a long history of oil and gas leaks in the area,” laments Indigenous rights group Survival International, observing that “[m]ore” than 70% of the Peruvian Amazon has been leased by the government to oil companies.”

The group translates a call to action by AIDESEP, an organization that fights for indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon, in which it pleads for “international public opinion, the media, NGOs and civil society to pay attention to this serious event that puts in danger the lives of thousands of people living in the area who have traditionally been neglected.”