After the tsunami: oil spill in Peru pollutes sea shores

21 January, 2022

Penguins, sea lions and seabirds have died and fishermen have lost their income after an oil disaster in Peru – triggered by the eruption of a volcano in Tonga hundreds of miles away.

21 beaches on the Pacific coast have been contaminated by the oil spill and an environmental emergency has been declared.

peru oil spill tonga
Clean-up workers in protective clothing work to remove the oil from Conchitas beach in Ancon, Peru. Martin Mejia/AP/TT

Flood waves triggered by the powerful eruption of the Hunga submarine volcano in the island nation of Tonga at the weekend reached Peru, among other places, and led to an oil leak at the Spanish oil company Repsol’s refinery there. 6,000 barrels of oil leaked.

Authorities call the spill the worst ecological disaster in the area around the capital Lima in modern times. The Ministry of the Environment states that 174 hectares – the equivalent of 270 football pitches – of sea, beaches and nature reserves have been affected.

Climate activists have been picking up seabirds in recent days that are either dead or soaked in oil. In nearby areas, dead penguins and sea lions have been found along the coasts.

President Pedro Castillo promises that a special body will be set up to deal with the crisis and its environmental impact.

map showing the distance between Tonga and Peru
Map showing the distance between Tonga and Peru. Graphic: Anders Humlebo

“How will we survive?”

Three beaches have been closed for clean-up, leaving hundreds of fishermen without work. This in turn has sparked protests in Ventanilla, a district of El Callao north of Lima’s port.

– How will we survive now? That is our concern,” Miguel Ángel Núñez, who led a protest on Wednesday, told AFP.

– We have lost our source of income and don’t know when this will end.

Repsol has teams on the beaches, dressed in white clean-up suits, using shovels and sponges to remove the oil.

– It’s not easy to work on this, but unfortunately we have to work,” says clean-up worker Giancarlo Briseño.

– The work is hard, quite toxic and it burns your face,” adds colleague Pedro Guzmán.

clean up work peru oil spill tonga
Clean-up work on one of the 21 beaches in Peru affected by a major oil spill following the massive volcanic eruption – and subsequent tsunamis – in Tonga. Photo: Martin Mejia/AP/TT

Started investigation

Former Peruvian Environment Minister Fabiola Muñoz says the clean-up of the oil spill will take two years. The public prosecutor has opened an investigation into environmental pollution at the refinery. Its owners risk a fine of more than SEK 300 million.

Tine van den Wall Bake Rodríguez, spokesperson for Repsol in Peru, says the company cannot say who is responsible for the accident, which the company says was caused by the waves from the volcanic eruption.

– We are extremely affected by it,” she says.

Around 84,000 people in Tonga – more than 80% of the island nation’s population – have been affected by the volcanic eruption and tsunami, according to UN estimates. But so far only three deaths have been confirmed.

On 15 January, the Hunga submarine volcano erupted in a major way. Located near the island nation of Tonga, the volcano triggered tsunamis that reached all the way to New Zealand and caused flooding in California, USA.

Shock waves from the volcano reached halfway around the globe and shook the atmosphere over 700 miles away.

The devastation on Tonga’s islands is massive after the eruption and help from other countries has had difficulty reaching them because of the ash.

Text: TT
Photo: Martin Mejia/AP/TT
Graphic: Anders Humlebo/TT

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