AFP/Reuters/ Ancon, Peru
Peru has declared an “environmental emergency” along a stretch of coast hit by an oil spill caused by freak waves from a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific.
With the 90-day decree, the government said it plans “sustainable management” of 21 beaches tarred by 6,000 barrels of oil that spilled from a tanker ship unloading at a refinery last Saturday.
Meanwhile, at Miramar Beach in Peru’s popular resort of Ancon, there are no bathers despite the summer heat.
Instead, it teems with workers in coveralls cleaning up an oil spill.
Almost 1mn litres (264,000 gallons) of crude spilled into the sea when a tanker was hit by waves while offloading at La Pampilla refinery in Ventanilla, 30km (19 miles) north of Lima.
Its owner, Spanish oil company Repsol, attributed the accident to the swell caused by the volcanic eruption in Tonga, thousands of miles away.
“Oil reaches the beach during high tide at night ... and deposits the oil on the shore,” Martin Martinez of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) AMAAC Peru, supervising the clean-up, told AFP.
“We take advantage to remove it from the sea, that and the saturated sand,” he said.
The spill has dealt a blow to tourism in the popular resort, and to businesses who make most of their money in the summer tourist season.
“There were many people until Sunday; the stain arrived on Monday, and since then, no one is swimming anymore,” said 48-year-old Richard Gutierrez, who has a food and soda stand on Miramar beach.
“We cannot sell anything, there are no vacationers, there is no one” apart from about 100 clean-up workers – soldiers, Repsol hired hands and volunteers – removing the polluted sand with spades to be taken to a toxic waste treatment facility.
“I used to collect crustaceans, but now, when I walk to the shore, they are dead,” fisherman Walter de la Cruz told Reuters. “Fishermen used to go sell the seafood that we collect. But now everything smells like death.”
Peru’s government has declared the spill of some 6,000 barrels of oil an “ecological disaster” and has demanded compensation from Repsol.
The company denies responsibility, saying that maritime authorities had issued no warning of freak waves after the Tonga eruption.
Repsol said on Friday that the clear-up operation would take until the end of February, adding that it had enlisted fishermen to help clear-up the oil.
The task, which began on Tuesday, is an arduous one.
The workers deposit the polluted sand onto blue tarps, which are dragged to a pile further inland, awaiting removal to another site.
Work begins at 8am and finishes at 6pm, with a 30-minute break for lunch.
No one knows how long it will take to clean up the affected stretch of coastline, but in Miramar, it is estimated it will last at least two weeks.
The environment ministry said that 174 hectares – equivalent to 270 football fields – of coast were affected, and some 118 hectares at sea.
Marine currents have dispersed the oil all the way to the coast of Chancay district, more than 40km from where the spill occurred.
The health ministry has identified 21 affected beaches and warned bathers to stay away.
The spill has also affected hundreds of artisanal fishermen who operate on the central Peruvian coast.
They rely on catches of sole, lorna drum and Peruvian grunt – fish commonly used in the local delicacy ceviche, a marinated raw fish dish Peru is famous for.
Leftist Peruvian President Pedro Castillo described it as the biggest “ecological disaster” to affect the Andean nation in recent years.
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