Peru appeals for international help to clean up major oil spill linked to the Tonga volcano eruption

Peru has appealed for international assistance to respond to a major oil spill connected to the eruption of an underwater volcano near Tonga last week.

An Italian-flagged tanker spilled 6,000 barrels of oil in the Pacific Ocean on Jan. 15, close to La Pampilla refinery outside Lima, Peruvian authorities said. The Spanish company Repsol, which operates the refinery, blamed the volcanic eruption near Tonga that sent large tsunami waves across the ocean.

The eruption triggered tsunami warnings in neighboring countries Chile and Ecuador, but Peru did not issue a similar alert. Two women in northern Peru were reportedly swept out to sea and drowned when massive waves crashed over a beach.

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The Italian shipping company transporting the oil said the tanker was unloading its cargo at La Pampilla, the country’s largest refinery, when the terminal’s underwater pipeline ruptured. An oil spot was discovered near the ship, and the company, Fratelli d’Amico Armatori, said staff on board immediately turned off the valves and notified authorities.

Repsol said unusual waves linked to the volcanic eruption caused the accident.

The next day, Repsol characterized the spill as “limited” and said it had been “contained.” But it quickly became clear that it was more significant than the company had initially claimed.

Peruvian authorities estimated that the spill affected nearly 200,000 square feet of beach on the country’s Pacific coast. Twenty-one beaches were contaminated, the government said.

After touring blackened beaches and surveying the coast from a helicopter in recent days, Peruvian President Pedro Castillo pledged to mitigate the environmental effects of the spill and called on Repsol to take responsibility and provide compensation. He said Thursday that he was convening a crisis committee to propose next steps.

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Castillo described the spill as the biggest “ecological disaster” to befall the South American country in recent years, Al Jazeera reported. Dead seals, fish and birds smothered in oil have washed ashore and fishing in the affected area is temporarily prohibited.

“Fishermen used to go sell the seafood that we collect. But now everything smells like death,” fisherman Walter de la Cruz told Reuters.

Crews wearing protective gear have fanned out across the affected beaches in a cleaning effort that Repsol said will take until the end of February. Repsol said it deployed more than 8,000 feet of containment booms — temporary floating barriers designed to contain oil spills — and 840 people to clean up the oil spill. More than 53,000 cubic feet of oil had been removed as of Friday, the company said.

“Repsol reaffirms its commitment to continue mitigating and remedying the effects of the spill,” it said in a statement Thursday, pledging to work with the authorities and local fishing community to respond effectively and transparently.

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The company said it was conducting its own investigation into the spill.

Affected beaches were closed, and Peruvian health authorities warned locals to avoid affected areas, refrain from touching dead animals and immediately go to a health center if they experience signs of poisoning from toxic substances.

The Pacific waters around Peru are known for their biodiversity, and the spill has already caused devastating environmental impacts. Images showed beaches blanketed with oil and workers in overalls coated with the substance. Biologists from Peru’s national service charged with managing protected areas have been working to scrub oil off drenched sea birds.

The spill threatens two protected areas — the Ancón Reserved Zone and the Pescadores islets — that house wildlife including Humboldt penguins and sea otters, the environmental nonprofit Oceana Peru said in a news release this week.

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The organization warned that the recovery of the ecosystem could take years. It decried what it described as the country’s “weak and inefficient” tsunami warning systems and delayed containment measures. The news release pointed to reports from the region that shovels, wheelbarrows and “other tools of limited scope and effectiveness” were being used in the cleanup.

Juan Carlos Riveros, Oceana Peru’s scientific director, told the Associated Press that guano birds, seagulls, terns, tendrils, sea lions and dolphins were among the species hardest hit by the spill.

The government has requested international assistance with the response efforts. Prime Minister Mirtha Vásquez said the United Nations will provide a team of experts to help, the Associated Press reported.

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Peru is also one of the world’s largest fish-producing countries, according to the United Nations. Peruvians rely on fish for food and livelihoods. Dozens of fishermen protested outside La Pampilla on Tuesday, holding signs reading, “No to ecological crime” and “Repsol killer of marine fauna.” A demonstration against Repsol also took place in Lima on Friday.

Repsol said it would hire local fishermen to help with the cleanup, and Vásquez said the company had promised to deliver food baskets to affected families.

Castillo, a leftist populist elected in the summer on promises to fight poverty and take on foreign mining interests, has sought to connect his government’s actions to address the oil spill to his environmental program.

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A beach affected by the oil spill served as the backdrop on Thursday for Castillo’s declaration of a national environmental emergency aimed also at addressing the longer-term challenge of climate change. The decree requires the government to set commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change.