A dark, greasy layer sits on the water, staining everything it touches as it laps against the pillars of the pier. Here in Ancón, a popular seaside resort north of Lima, residents have had to learn to live with this stain on their waters in the year since the January 2022 oil spill.
What began as a spill of 0.16 barrels of oil — according to Repsol, the Spanish energy giant behind the incident — had three days later spilled some 6,000 barrels from one of its refineries. By the end of the month, Peruvian authorities were facing a major disaster, estimating that more than 11,000 barrels of oil had spilled into the country’s waters.
“The pollution is still at the bottom of the sea,” says Luis Chiroque, a fisherman for 46 years and president of the Ancón Artisanal Fishermen Association. He and his colleagues remember what it was like to fish without worry, carrying on traditions and practices inherited from their parents. The sea, he says, “is our second home, but we no longer live the same way.”
The spill at the La Pampilla refinery — located 25 kilometers south of Ancón in Ventanilla and operated by Repsol since 1996 — has been described as the worst environmental disaster to hit Peru’s capital in recent memory. The incident polluted some 15,000 hectares of coastal and marine areas, affecting more than 10,000 nearby residents and resulting in the deaths of more than 1,850 animals.
Abnormal waves following an underwater volcanic eruption near Tonga were said to have caused the spill, though the Peruvian government was quick to also point the finger at Repsol’s alleged negligence.
Although the government declared a state of environmental emergency and approved an immediate, short-term action plan to deal with the disaster, the Peruvian Environment Ministry’s Environmental Assessment and Enforcement Agency (OEFA) reported in November that 71 sites remained contaminated.
On a recent visit to the affected area, Diálogo Chino spoke with fishermen from eight different associations, all of whom attested to ongoing contamination. Repsol, however, claims that the sea and beaches are now clean. A year after the spill, coastal communities remain locked in disputes over the state of the environment and compensation — with many feeling that no solution is in sight.
The forgotten bay of Pasamayo
It is 8 am, and a group of 30 fishermen have gathered near the cliffs of Pasamayo, a coastal area just north of Ancón. It is known as being a difficult place to reach, but not for Germán Melchor. Day after day, he fishes here for sole, grunt, and morwong, species that inhabit the rocks and whose meat is prized for its flavor and texture.
“They say the beaches are clean, but here’s the proof,” says 57-year-old Mr. Melchor, as he points towards the signs of oil contamination around Pasamayo bay. He has been a fisherman here since he was 17 and is now president of an artisanal fishing association in Pasamayo that includes 45 local workers.
Following the Repsol spill, he fears for the future: “Six years from now, who’s going to give me work? I’m not going to go fishing in that oil site and feed my children or sell what I catch.”
Mr. Melchor says that the local fishermen had never needed help from the government because they could generate sufficient income on their own. Since the spill, however, they do not have the necessary resources. He tells us that one of his sons had to drop out of school because his family could no longer pay for his tuition.
As Mr. Melchor guided Diálogo Chino along the route taken by the fishermen of his association, the smell of oil was noticeable, while dark stains and oily residue were clearly visible on the rocks along the shore.
No action had yet been taken to clean up the Pasamayo oil spill. In its assessment of the cleanup efforts following the spill, the OEFA reported that Repsol’s Peruvian subsidiary had described Pasamayo as “inaccessible” due to its location and landscape, and that working in the area presented an “intolerable level of risk,” even with the use of protective equipment.
A spokesperson for the OEFA told Diálogo Chino via email that the agency “does not have the function of determining, recommending, and/or approving decontamination and remediation methods for the affected areas. However, if areas affected by the La Pampilla environmental emergency are identified, it is up to the company to remediate them.”
According to statements by the fishermen, the company told them that the area would not be cleaned up. Diálogo Chino approached Refinería La Pampilla SAA (Relapasa), the Repsol subsidiary responsible for the Ventanilla refinery, to ask about its cleanup plans, but the company declined to comment.
Juan Carlos Riveros, a marine biologist and scientific director of NGO Oceana Peru, told Diálogo Chino that the cleanup has not been uniform in all affected areas, highlighting a lack of post-disaster planning: “If you declare that an area like Pasamayo is going to be a sacrifice area — that is to say, that it is not going to be cleaned up — it should be accompanied by a permanent monitoring and follow-up plan. But none of that happened. The oil that is in that area is going to be carried by the waves and go out into the sea.”
Sources from the Peruvian Ombudsman’s Office told Diálogo Chino that a total of 1,050 fishermen from 22 associations have banded together to demand environmental remediation and compensation for the loss of their source of income.
The company has made offers of redress, but they have not been accepted. The fishermen say they do not know when, or if, the areas where they used to fish will be restored, nor when they will be able to fish safely again.
Rehabilitation plan pending
Among the various measures and sanctions imposed on Repsol by Peruvian authorities to remedy the spill, the OEFA ordered the company to draw up an environmental rehabilitation plan. But the deadline for its submission is October 4, 2023 — nearly 21 months after the oil spill.
Lissette Vásquez, deputy for the environment at the ombudsman’s office, told Diálogo Chino that her department has requested information from Repsol and the OEFA, as well as Peru’s ministries of Health, Energy and Mines, and Production, “because the people in those areas need to know whether they can resume fishing activities or not.
We are a year after the spill, and studies are still being carried out,” she said. According to the United Nations, the damage caused by the spill will affect the Peruvian coast for between six and ten years.
The ombudsman’s office and OEFA told Diálogo Chino that since 2011, three oil spills have been reported by Relapasa at the La Pampilla refinery. Following the 2022 incident, the OEFA imposed coercive fines of PEN 2 million (USD 530,000), which were later canceled. However, penalties for a series of administrative failures amount to PEN 75 million — none of which have been paid.
Although uncertainty remains over environmental remediation measures, affected fishermen welcomed Repsol’s earlier commitment to provide each of them with PEN 3,000 a month in advance compensation, following an agreement between the company and the government in early March 2022.
To receive the payment, the main requirement was to be registered in a special database for those affected by the oil spill, but the fishermen say the delivery of payments has been irregular and inconsistent.
To date, more than 10,000 people have registered, including fishermen, shopkeepers, restaurant workers, and others affected in the Ancón area. Repsol claims to have reached agreements on final compensation payouts with 60 percent of these people. But for some fishermen, the compensation process has been neither fair nor transparent, with agreements signed only out of economic necessity.
“We don’t even know how they have calculated the compensation they want to give us,” says Ancón fisherman Eddi Ccapacca. “If there is no final report, how can they talk about damages? We have also been affected emotionally and psychologically.”
Compensation agreement documents seen by Diálogo Chino state that Relapasa will grant final compensation without the right to future claims and “without admitting any recognition of responsibility.”
Pasamayo fisherman Germán Melchor claims some people have even been denied the right to a copy of their compensation agreement: “As victims, they want to make us sign an out-of-court settlement ceding our rights, without having a copy of the document.”
Diálogo Chino approached Relapasa for comment on allegations of environmental damage, its compensation processes, and the progress of the rehabilitation plan, but the company said it would not respond.
One year after the oil spill, Repsol’s debt to the environment and affected populations is still incalculable. For fishermen such as Mr. Melchor, hopes of reaching a resolution are becoming harder to hold onto.
“We don’t know how much longer the contamination will be there,” he says. “We want a solution, but it looks like it’s going to be impossible, and these are the consequences we are paying for now.”
This article was originally published by Diálogo Chino and republished with authorization.
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