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Posted on on July 29th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (

Chronic Oil Leaks Sully Lake Maracaibo, Livelihoods.
By Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Jul 27, 2010 (IPS) – Dark oil slicks are spreading from the middle of Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo towards the shores — the wetlands, mangroves, beaches and docks. Oil is permeating fishing nets, coating the garbage dumped into the water, killing off wildlife and driving away residents and tourists.

“My sons would set out the nets and at dawn would bring in mullet and corvina fish to sell to small restaurants in Puerto Caballo. They stopped several months ago because what they caught were blackened and damaged,” Adelso Silva, an elderly fisherman from Santa Cruz de Mara, near the city of Maracaibo, capital of Zulia state.

Located in northwest Venezuela and connected by a natural channel to the Caribbean Sea, Lake Maracaibo is the largest in South America, with a surface area of 12,800 square kilometres and a volume of 245 billion cubic metres of water. The shoreline and lakebed have been the sites of intense petroleum production since the second decade of the 20th century.

According to Ricardo Coronado and Ramiro Ramírez, board members of the government-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), there are 6,000 active wells in the lake, producing 700,000 barrels (159 litres each) of crude per day. They are connected by about 45,000 km of pipeline, in a gigantic underwater metallic web. There are another 4,000 inactive wells.

There have always been leaks of petroleum or natural gas from that huge network of pipes, according to sources from the industry, environmentalists and residents of the region. But since May the patches of oil have increased, as has their effect on people who make their livelihood from the lake.

“It’s increasingly difficult to catch a fish that isn’t blemished. Fifteen years ago I would catch up to 90 kilograms of fish in a day. Today, if I’m lucky, it’s 10,” said Javier Araujo, a fisherman from Cabimas, the principal city on the east shore of the lake. He has been spending his evenings using gasoline to clean his crude-soaked nets.

“Some 13,000 fishers are the ones most harmed by this disaster, which is present over eight percent of the lake’s surface. It affects our entire relationship with this body of water, including the decline in oil production,” Eliseo Fermín, president of the Zulia state legislature, and member of the political opposition.

Rafael Ramírez, minister of Energy and Petroleum as well as president of PDVSA, denied that it is a disaster: “It’s a chronic problem. It’s not a spill — they are leaks, and the leaks we have in the lake are no more than eight barrels daily. What is exceptional is that this situation, which has been ongoing, has now been brought to the fore.”

In the last three months, “we have repaired an average of 117 leaks per week” under the water and PDVSA hired some 3,000 fishers to help in collecting the oil and further clean-up, acknowledged the official.

Fisherman Silva said, “They collect scrap metal and garbage, but also quite a bit of crude. Some days I’ve watched them bring in enough to fill some trucks and they take it to PDVSA warehouses.”

“It’s a hard job, it pays 100 bolívares (23 dollars according to the official exchange rate) a day, but without any other benefits, and PDVSA prefers fishers or residents who are with the PSUV,” the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela, he said.

Fermín commented that the fishers “don’t have the expertise, the experience or the equipment needed to collect spilled petroleum and clean up the mangroves and wetlands, which are breeding sites for fish, crabs and prawns.”

The damage and its causes persist whether the leak is one barrel or 100. And the problem has a key word: maintenance,” engineer Diego González told IPS. He has worked in the industry 38 years and is a professor of graduate courses in hydrocarbons in several Venezuelan universities.

“There have always been leaks and spills in the lake, as a problem associated with oil production, but the operating companies used to take immediate action to repair the faults. That no longer happens,” said González.

“In the past, PDVSA and other operators admitted the leaks and paid compensation to the fishers. Now they stopped paying,” he said.

“To recognise 117 repairs a week gives an idea of the number of leaks admitted by Ramírez just 22 days after our complaints. What they have is improvisation and neglect in attending to pipelines that are 50 years old or more,” Gustavo Carrasquel, of the Zulia environmental organisation Azul Ambientalistas, told IPS.

In Fermín’s opinion, “the problem is intimately related to the expropriation — really the confiscation — of dozens of contracting companies (ordered by President Hugo Chávez a year and a half ago) that were the ones doing the maintenance and repairs of the wells in the lake, and which, under PDVSA orders, have stopped operating.”

“A few years ago, 135 boats were going out every day to monitor the installations. Now there are just 15 or so. Since 2003, when the petroleum employees failed in their strike to get Chávez to resign, overflights of the lake have been banned — the helicopters can’t monitor what is happening,” said Fermín.

González agreed that PDVSA “doesn’t carry out the maintenance that the contract companies used to, and an ordinary problem in the industry turns into an extraordinary situation of pollution, a decline in production and loss of income for thousands of people.”

“In addition to the petroleum leaks, there are gas leaks, and that translates into a loss of pressure in the wells, which then run their course more quickly, ultimately reducing production and lowering the country’s current and potential revenues,” said lawmaker Fermín.

According to activist Carrasquel, “the petroleum pollution is just one of the plagues on the lake.”

“Other problems include the dredging of the shipping canal that connects Lake Maracaibo to the Gulf of Venezuela and the Caribbean Sea, with the resulting salinisation; the phosphates that come from fertilisers and insecticides used in farming in the south; and the wastewater from the cities on the eastern shore,” he said.

“The first thing the government should do is let the non-governmental organisations take action. Then it should recognise the problem and, with broad participation, elaborate a management plan — and decide if we want to sacrifice the lake for the production of fossil fuels or vice versa,” stated Carrasquel.

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