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Ministry of the Environment initiates legal action for oil spill in national park

Published on February 01, 2022

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 The area most affected by the oil spill is within the Cayambe Coca National Park. The Ministry of Environment also announced administrative actions.

 Forty-eight hours after the rupture of the Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline (OCP) caused an oil spill in the Piedra Fina sector (in the Napo province), the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MATE) published a statement announcing that it will take legal and administrative measures against the OCP. This comes after the Ministry confirmed that the area most affected by this disaster is within the Cayambe Coca National Park. 

In a puzzling statement, the Ministry of the Environment’s said that it has notified the OCP that it must initiate a detailed investigation, so that the “sampling efforts are of greater depth and allow to measure the magnitude, extension and reversibility of negative environmental damage” and the determination of environmental damage that will derive “in corresponding fines and sanctions.” The communication director of the ministry said that after the investigation is carried out by the OCP, “the Ministry verifies that due process is carried out in accordance with environmental regulations.”

The Regulation to the Organic Code of the Environment, article 809, says that the beginning of the process of determining environmental damage “begins with an identification of a presumed environmental damage” that can come from an event reported by the regulated party, by a citizen complaint or ex officio through the control and monitoring mechanisms established by law. Therefore, “the Competent Environmental Authority” will inspect the affected area and will determine through a technical report the need to carry out a preliminary characterization or detailed investigation, as the case may be, to determine the existence of environmental damage or environmental liability.

The Ministry’s statement also says that “the corresponding legal and administrative actions have been initiated, based on the evidence of environmental and social impact, as well as the indication of environmental damage, which result in the corresponding fines and sanctions.”

The document does not specify which sanctions have been initiated or give more details.

How much damage was caused by the oil spill?

In the Ministry’s statement, it says that 21,007.91 square meters were affected, of which 16,913.61 square meters are within the protected area of ​​the Cayambe Coca National Park, while the remaining 4,094.3 square meters are in the buffer zone of the protected area. Tarcisio Granizo, former Minister of the Environment, says that the buffer zones are “a zone that surrounds the protected areas that serves as a ‘cushion’ or buffer between the protected areas and those that are not, that is, a kind of limit.”

As of the issuance of the Organic Code of the Environment, the buffer areas are recognized as part of the protection system, but for this they must be approved as such, says Granizo.

The Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition said that the oil spill affects the water consumption of the populations of the provinces of Napo and Orellana, for which it has requested the Decentralized Autonomous Governments (GAD) of both provinces to “take action” to guarantee the “safe water consumption.”

Personnel from the Ministry of Environment are monitoring 210 kilometers of the Coca River and its tributaries to identify “traces” of hydrocarbon and will coordinate and develop environmental remediation actions.

What caused the oil spill?

According to a statement from the OCP Ecuador company, which manages the pipeline, the cause of the rupture was “rockfall due to heavy rains in the area.”

The area is undergoing a regressive erosion process that have weakened the land and have caused previous spills.

The current break occurred on the afternoon of January 28, 2022. According to OCP, the pipeline broke in an area where a tube is not directly exposed to rivers. In addition, it confirmed that the reception or exports of oil have not been suspended.

The President’s office said in a statement that operations are functioning normally in the country’s oil transportation systems: the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline System (SOTE) and the Shushufindi-Quito Pipeline. Both are managed by the public company Petroecuador.

In a statement, OCP said that it had activated its emergency protocol and that “it immediately initiated actions aimed at avoiding environmental damage.”

The company said it is assessing the extent of the infrastructure damage and starting repairs. It also said in a statement that “the flow of oil has already been controlled” and the risk of it reaching water sources was avoided. The company has also begun to build oil containment pools to try to control contamination.

In the Piedra Fina sector, in December, the OCP and the state-owned Trans-Ecuadorian Pipeline System (SOTE) had to build alternative branches of their pipelines and suspend oil pumping due to soil erosion caused by the Coca River.

In May 2020, there was a collapse in the same sector that destroyed sections of the SOTE, the OCP and a pipeline. There was a leak of some 15,000 barrels that ended up being dumped into three Amazonian rivers, affecting several riverside populations, some of them indigenous.

Environmentalists demand action

Sunday afternoon, the environmental organization Amazon Frontlines published a video recorded with a drone showing the path of the oil from the site of the spill to the Coca River. Andrés Tapia, leader of Confeniae, said that the OCP company has not communicated with the communities about the spill. Tapia said that they have not been informed about the alleged efforts announced by the company to make repairs or to prevent the crude from reaching water sources.

Alexandra Almeida, coordinator of Ecological Action Petroleum, said that an NGO team is traveling to the area to verify the damage. The leaders of the communities surrounding the pipeline have sent them videos and photos that account for the damage.

He pointed out that the crude “has reached the Coca River.”

“Residents of Panduyacu, in Sucumbíos, have already sent images of the oil in the river” and also those from “Salinas, in Napo.”

“This means that it will soon reach the Napo River, since the Coca flows into it.”

Pablo Fajardo, the lawyer who defended indigenous communities affected by the US oil company Texaco (now Chevron), says that there should be an investigation into what happened, disagreeing with the claim the rockfall caused the rupture of the pipeline.

“There are people who indicate that there was company machinery working in the area,” said added Fajardo, who criticized the private oil company OCP and the state-owned Petroecuador for the recurrent contamination events in the Amazon region.

“We are demanding that the Prosecutor’s Office act, because there is a crime against water” and the country’s Constitution guarantees the rights of nature,” justifying legal actions with the aim of “forcing the company (OCP) to comprehensively repair the damage.”

Ministry and OCP claim work is underway

The Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources says that a team of at least 100 technicians has been working since January 29th on environmental remediation tasks for the spill.

According to the institution, they are using specialized machinery, such as pressure and channel pumps, booms (containment sausages), absorbent material, fast tanks, and tank cars.

“At the moment, the tank cars are advancing with the process of collecting crude oil from the containment pools implemented to avoid further environmental damage. They go to the OCP’s Amazonas station, in Lago Agrio, where the recovered crude oil is inspected.”

OCP Ecuador reiterated that it is already carrying out the remediation work.

“Three companies have been contracted for cleaning and remediation work. We will carry out this work in a committed and responsible manner, until we reach comprehensive reparation without sparing resources for it,” said Jorge Vugdelija, executive president of OCP Ecuador.

 

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