Oil leaks and spills threaten the fragile ecosystem of the Golfete de Coro in western Venezuela

Oil leaks and spills threaten the fragile ecosystem of the Golfete de Coro in western Venezuela

Pdvsa repara derrames de petróleo en el Golfete de Coro, pero siguen activas dos fugas de gas y una de agua potable




Much is said about the damage caused by oil spills in Lake Maracaibo, mainly because of its great environmental importance for South America. However, in Falcón there is an environmental reservoir that also suffers serious aftereffects that have been getting much worse in the last four years as a result of the constant spills of products from the Paraguaná Refining Complex (CRP). We are talking about the Golfete de Coro.

Irene Revilla // Correspondent lapatilla.com

According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Environmental Human Rights (ODHHA) of the NGO “Clima 21”, there are no records of the damage caused by the constant spills and leaks of gas, oil and even waste from the pools of the Amuay and Cardón refineries, which are part of the CRP (Paraguaná Refining Complex).

The Golfete de Coro is subject to unquantifiable damage, because in its area, in addition to being located the two largest refineries in Venezuela, six gas, oil and water pipelines also cross it to supply raw bulk input from “Bajo Grande” (storage tank complex and port) in Zulia State to this important refining complex, but the lack of maintenance and the expiration of the useful expected life of these pipelines and refinery area equipment, are drowning an important natural reservoir and asset.

More than 10 communities of artisanal fishermen live there, and it is also the wintering home of migratory birds that come to the mangroves to stock up on food and rest. These are protected areas that include national parks and nature reserves, whose special condition is not respected and if the environmental abuse continues like this, these are destined to lose all their natural qualities.

Some 10,000 inhabitants throughout Falcón State are affected by these constant spills and the negligence of PDVSA (National oil monopoly). An example is the inhabitants of Tiguadare on the Paraguaná Peninsula, who have entirely lost their traditional fisheries by crude oil contamination. The whole area has been left without fish by pollution. Faced with this problem, fishermen have had to migrate to other areas of the gulf to be able to work and bring sustenance to their homes.

In the case of town of Amuay in the “Los Taques” Municipality, boats and nets have been soiled by crude oil, in addition to the shores, and thus the species of fish and mollusks that reproduce in the sands have been affected.These to constitute the main livelihood of this community.

How many spills and leaks were registered in recent years?

“Climate 21” stated that from January to June 2023, oil spills and leaks have been recorded in seven states of the country, with the most affected being Zulia with 23 and after it Falcón with 13. In January, 15 spills were recorded; 4 in February; 6 in March; 7 in April; 7 in May; 5 in June; 6 in July and 6 in August. Off these 50% occurred in Falcón. From 2021 to 2023, on average there were seven spills per month in Falcón and Zulia states.

In the last balance of PDVSA’s Environmental Social Management that was published way back in 2016, it was detailed that 8,250 spills had been recorded, so the ODHHA of Clima 21 considers that the number of spills and leaks that are registered thanks to the media and complaints verified, they are very low compared to the latest PDVSA report.

Falcón State is not only affected by crude oil spills from the CRP, but also from the El Palito refinery in the Carabobo State. The most affected area includes the “Médanos de Coro” National Park, the Cuare Wildlife Refuge, a wildlife reserve and a marine aquatic park called Morrocoy. All severely affected by spills that are not attended in time.

Spills and leaks: what are they?

The graduate in Biology from the Central University of Venezuela, Cristina Fiol, who is also part of several NGOs in defense of the environment such as Provita, Caribe Sur and Clima 21, and with 29 years of experience in environmental studies, explained that normally spills are accidents. Mostly accidents in industrial areas in which oil is lost, carried away by currents and thus spread reaching large areas in the sea, producing emulsification, biodegradation and, finally, sinking and sedimentation.

The lighter fraction of oil can evaporate in two or three days and the remains sink to the seabed, but contingency plans must be faster and address the spills even before they happen. Among the good practices are contingency training to address the consequences of these events. PDVSA should know very well how to act in these cases, because before building the refineries and the methods of transporting the materials, the environmental and social impact is studied.

The specialist explains that there are contingency plans to deal with these emergencies and accidents. “Contingency plans are strategies that are conceived from the perspective of environmental planning. A preliminary study must be done on the entire area to develop the plan and respond to the community and the environment to prevent what is happening lately from happening.”

“That is to say, be prepared and respond in time, not like what is happening now when sailors or satellite images raise an alert and then days go by and no one comes to respond.”

Since 1986 there have been contingency plans in Venezuela, first developed to attend crude oil spills from tankers. These were planned for tanker and ships transportation spills.

Within these plans the first stage is the obligation to notify that there is a spill. Subsequently, determine the origin and initial damage, and then assess the situation and thus provide the response for the mobilization of personnel, ships, planes and everything that is necessary to proceed to the clean up. This is what guarantees the process of collecting the largest amount of crude oil to reduce damage. Afterwards, a new study of what was done is carried out to find out if the plan worked or if another restoration of the impacted sites is necessary.

Unquantifiable damage

Dr. Carlos Carmona of the Ecology Center of the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC) expanded about the recurrence of hydrocarbon leaks to the east of the Gulf of Venezuela. He explained that the “Golfete de Coro” is crossed by six pipeline complexes and one in disuse, among them the polyduct-gas-oil pipeline of the “Ulé-Amuay” system and that starts in Lake Maracaibo. On September 26th, 2021, regular leaks began to be seen, although they began in 2020 and most were detected through satellite images or complaints from residents of nearby areas.

Mainly four areas were contaminated: Tiguadare, Punta Maragüey, Río Seco and Punta Cardón. Then in June and July 2020, the fishermen’s protests began and plans were announced to compensate for the damages that have not been fulfilled.

The specialist details that spills and leaks also come from the washing of oil tankers, overflowing of refinery pools and pipe leaks. All this affects the communities that make a living from fishing and, of course, harms marine biodiversity. There is no knowledge of the magnitude of the damage that has been caused in the Golfete de Coro by all the spills not attended to promptly with contingency plans, because there is no public or private study as a result of the lack of resources and personnel to accomplish this.

For Jesús Urbina, representative of the ONG “Transparencia Venezuela”, spills and leaks are events linked to the great corruption and are part of environmental crimes. Currently there is no way to approach the national ministries to investigate the matter, there are even complaints of misinformation and denial of access to official information.

It is known that for at least 15 years no cleanup efforts have been carried out, but instead the pipes are patched up and soon break again.

Fishermen’s expectations

After long struggles between protests and meetings with PDVSA personnel and regional and municipal leaders during the last three years, the fishermen of several towns in Falcón confirmed to La Patilla that they expect compensation from the state oil company that will be given before 2023 ends. A clean-up of the Golfete de Coro is also expected and finally, the replacement of the pipelines that are already very deteriorated and so old that they cannot withstand any more repairs.

In the last oil spill recorded this year, exactly a month ago, a group of fishermen from Amuay was directly affected, their boats and nets were ruined. PDVSA informed them that they will receive help for these damages that affect five families.

What’s in the Golfete de Coro?

The Golfete de Coro is classified as a hydrographic maritime feature that is an incision in the coast larger than a harbor and smaller than a gulf. Located between the western coast of the Falconian sea coast itself and the Médanos isthmus, between the points of Cardón and Maragüey.

In an investigation published by Sandra B. Giner F. from the Institute of Zoology and Tropical Ecology, Central University of Venezuela, she details that Punta Maragüey and Punta Caimán, located in the west of the Falcón State, are two bars that extend in a southeast-northwest direction from the coast, which were formed with the contributions of sediments from the mouth of the Mitare River to the west of the Golfete de Coro.

Both have large extensions of intertidal flats bordered to the west by mangrove ecosystems, where Black Mangrove (Avicennia germinans) predominates, and a bar to the east that separates the intertidal basin from the sandy beach.

“These sites receive large concentrations of shorebirds of various species, including the Rufous-breasted Sandpiper (Calidris canutus rufa), the Great-billed Plover (Charadrius wilsonia wilsonia) and the Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) that come to replenish the energy and nutrients necessary to continue their annual migration. Unfortunately, currently these sites present significant threats to wildlife due to being located near two oil refineries, Punta Cardón and Amuay in the southwest of Paraguaná, and due to the presence of underwater and land oil and gas pipelines in the area,” the researcher explains.

“Oil spills can have a direct impact on individual birds, but more importantly, they destroy the habitat that provides food for shorebirds, such as small crabs and marine worms. This is systemic environmental devastation,” says Brad Winn, director of Shorebird Habitat Management at Manomet.

The experts consulted for this work assure that contingency plans must be resumed, that work with teams of specialists to find strategies that will help the Golfete de Coro to restore its marine flora and fauna, replace the marine pipelines that have already reached their useful life and make plans to prevent future leaks.