The surge in fires that tore through the Amazon rainforest this year made headlines around the world and stirred up controversy for the Brazilian government. However, another environmental disaster- the third that Brazil has experienced this year- has been affecting the country’s coastline: a mysterious oil spill whose origin is still unclear.
Since August, oil has been washing up on Brazil’s northeastern shores with little explanation from the authorities. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, first pointed the finger at neighboring Venezuela and later suggested that it was an act of terrorism initiated by Greenpeace. Conflicting reports continue to emerge, with the blame being put on both Greek and Marshall Islands-flagged tankers.
‘Bilge dumping’ (when cargo vessels and tankers illegally dump oily “bilge water” into the ocean) could be the cause of the spill, but Brazilian authorities say that this is unlikely. The government has been criticised for its disaster response, having failed to implement contingency plans until October.
While the blame game rages on, the oil spill has continued to pollute shorelines. As of November, 2 500 kms of tropical Brazilian beaches have been stained, more than a third of the total length of Brazil’s coast (7 367 km according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics).
Based on maps of the pollution created by locals and IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), the oil spill has stained beaches in Praia de Flamengo, Piatã and Boca do Rio (among others), as well as 123 cities, including Salvador, Lauro de Freitas and Esplanada. 14 natural reserves and parks are also among the affected areas.
The country’s production of oil and natural gas increased in 2019 compared to the previous year and a record-breaking August saw oil production reach 2.989 million barrels per day, up 18.5% from August 2018, while natural gas production rose 25.3% from August 2018 to 133.3 million cubic meters per day.
While this increased production will no doubt boost the oil industry (the resource contributes 7% to the country’s GDP), ecosystems and local communities should be considered. Fishermen are especially affected, given that their main economic activity is reliant on the sea; sales of seafood have fallen sharply because of potential oil contamination.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply conducted a study of fish in the affected areas. It identified two fish samples with values above the levels of health concern as defined by the National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA), while another 66 fish, shrimp and lobster samples analysed so far have results below these levels. The study noted that there is a risk of contamination ‘only if there is continuous consumption of the same product at these levels for several years’. It is therefore perhaps too early to determine the effects this incident will have on the consumption of fish from the affected areas.
Researchers point out that, in addition to the visible impact that the spill has had on beaches, mangroves and estuaries, traces of oil have been found in animals including shellfish, birds and fish. IBAMA has reported that of 151 oiled animals that have so far been recovered from affected areas, 106 have died. Further impacts on wildlife include asphyxiation, a reduction in fish larvae being fertilised and disturbances in food chains.
The coral reefs in the areas of impact have also been affected. Experts say that this is the worst disaster in history for Brazilian corals; the reefs were hit as they were recovering from unprecedented bleaching caused by rising sea temperatures that led to 90% of one species dying. Greenpeace explains that coral reefs are affected by decomposing oil, which increases the resource’s density and causes between 10% and 30% of it to be absorbed by sediments and suspended materials, often settling into corals.
Local communities have taken action to clean up the spill in light of government inaction. However, compounds found in fuel oil can be inhaled without proper protection and are volatile. These compounds (benzene, toluene and xylene) are highly carcinogenic and acute intoxication can cause nausea and headaches. Some volunteers have been hospitalised due to toxin exposure.
The Brazilian government needs to implement corrective and proactive measures to prevent an accident like this from happening again or the region will continue to suffer. Unfortunately, this looks to be unlikely as the government has dismantled environmental laws and agencies meant to safeguard the environment and the economy, including reducing the number of fines given for illegal deforestation and essentially dismantling IBAMA. Continuing to behave without regard for the planet will render the most vulnerable inhabitants defenceless against the onslaught of climate change and harmful actions by humans.
Featured image by: Wikimedia