A Scramble to Fix, and Understand, Peru’s Oil Disaster



In the northern jungles of Peru, an aging oil pipeline has ruptured at least twice over the last several months, releasing as much as 3,000 barrels of crude oil into the rainforest. The spills have fouled ecosystems nourished by the Chiriaco and Morona rivers in the Amazonas Region in the northwest of the country, affecting as many as 8,000 people.

After weeks of delays, the state-run oil enterprise, Petroperu, has hired a remediation company to clean up the spill, and while the company has told Peruvian environmental officials that restoration of the areas affected could take up to a year, it has said the waters are safe to drink now, and that the fish are safe to eat. Some scientists, meanwhile, aren’t so sure, and they suggest the impacts on the surrounding ecosystem and communities could last last far longer.

The reality is that, on many important questions, no one really knows.

“Not a whole lot is known about how oil behaves in the Amazonian context,” said Barbara Fraser, a journalist who has covered Peruvian oil spills for years and is currently reporting from the site of the spills. “You have studies of the BP oil spill and studies going back to the Exxon Valdez, but there aren’t a whole lot of studies from the Amazonian forest ecosystem. There just isn’t a whole lot of data.”

Paul Arellano, a geographer at Ecuador’s Yachay Tech University, agrees. “What surprised me the most is how little work has been done on the relationship between petroleum and tropical vegetation,” he said.

That’s one of the reasons he decided to start applying a new technology to finding oil spills in the Amazon. After working for years on bioremediation projects in the Ecuadorian Amazon – which he admits is difficult, expensive and time-consuming work – Arellano went to the University of Leicester to learn how to detect Amazon oil spills from space. Using satellite-mounted hyperspectral cameras, which collect images along a wide electromagnetic spectrum, Arellano is now trying to fill in the knowledge gaps surrounding the impacts of oil spills on tropical vegetation.

The technology has been used in the past to look at oil spills, but hasn’t caught on in the Amazon basin. Last October, Arellano published a study in the journal Environmental Pollution that showed how patches of Amazon forest, weakened by oil pollution, could be detected through hyperspectral satellite imagery. That kind of data helps to quantify the dynamics and extent of current oil spills, he said, as well as uncover damage caused by oil spills that happened ten, twenty, even thirty years ago.

Children exposed to the crude spill at the confluence of the Chiriaco and Marañon rivers. Visual by Barbara Fraser.

For Raul Loayza Muro, who directs the ecotoxicology lab at Peru’s Cayetano Heredia University, what’s already known about oil spills, whatever the context, is reason enough for concern — and to be suspicious of Petroperu’s assurances.

“This is now considered an environmental disaster,” Muro said. “These 3,000 barrels have destroyed the functionality of the ecosystem. It has a toxic effect on the flora, fauna and human health. I doubt this will be fixed in one year as Petroperu has claimed.”

Crude oil is made up of hundreds of different compounds, including hydrocarbons like methane, a gas, and benzene, a liquid, as well as metals like iron and nickel. These substances, Muro said, can be absorbed through the skin or ingested by organisms that come into contact with crude oil, and they can result in developmental, gastrointestinal and reproductive effects. “They have been known to mimic hormones,” he said. “So in a body, these molecules can disrupt endocrine and reproductive systems as well as the renal and digestive systems.”

Such realities add a grim weight to recent reports from the BBC, which suggested that indigenous children living in the areas nearest the oils spills have been put to work helping to clean it up — often with their bare hands. “I’ve heard three or four different versions of a perverse incentive that the company agreed to buy back any of the oil that people collected,” Fraser said. The accuracy of such accounts, and the extent to which such such arrangements were official, is still unclear, Fraser added.

For his part, Muro admits that having a remediation company on the ground is an important first step, but he says the toxic effects of the spilled crude on the surrounding communities are almost certain to be long term.

“No matter how advanced these bioremediation technologies that are supposed to break down the petroleum, it is very difficult to remove from the ecosystem,” he said. “And the longer it remains in place, the higher the risk it poses to living things, including humans.”

This article has been updated to correctly characterize benzene and methane, both compounds found in crude oil. It has also been updated to correct the occupation of Paul Arellano, who is a geographer not a geologist, as well as the name of the institution for which he works, which is Yachay Tech University.