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On September 1, the Provincial Court of Orellana in Ecuador’s Amazon dismissed the case brought by indigenous communities to shut down major oil pipelines over the April 7 oil spill that affected nearby land, wildlife and communities. The judge asserted that there are other mechanisms in place to address claims for remediation and redress. The communities have said they will appeal the verdict. 

On August 12, Earth.Org reported that National and Amazon-region Indigenous federations and communities in Ecuador had filed legal actions demanding that the flow of crude oil through Ecuador’s major pipelines be suspended. The judge said that the court was the incorrect legal venue to bring the case to and that ‘administrative, civil and criminal mechanisms exist to address plaintiffs’ claims for remediation and redress’. 

The communities will appeal the verdict and, with other Indigenous organisations and international partners, ramp up their global campaign, “Stop Amazon Extraction,” calling for a moratorium on all extraction in the Amazon. 

Carlos Jipa, president of the Kichwa Indigenous federation, FCUNAE, says, “We denounce the judge’s decision today. The judge failed to even so much as acknowledge our rights, when, in fact, his decision should have ordered the immediate suspension of crude oil through the compromised pipelines that continue to endanger my people. Oil operations are still contaminating our rivers and threatening our lives. We protect our rivers and our forest, and we are ready to fight this until the end. We will appeal the court’s decision.”

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The spill was the result of the SOTE and OCP pipelines that ruptured from erosion and put at risk the safety and health of the Kichwa people; communities in Ecuador, Peru and Brazil that depend on the Coca and Napo rivers for drinking water. A number of endangered and vulnerable wildlife species in the area were also threatened by the spill. Aggressive erosion and massive landslides are threatening an imminent second oil spill.

The affected indigenous territories overlap the Bajo Napo Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), a site of global importance to the planet’s overall health and the persistence of biodiversity. The KBA is home to a remarkable diversity of wildlife. With more than 580 species of birds, including harpy eagles, zigzag herons and cocha antshrike, and high levels of biodiversity of species of ant birds, tyrant flycatchers, ovenbirds, parrots and tanagers, the KBA is a popular spot for ornithologists and birdwatchers. The area also has a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and Ramsar Wetland of international importance. Other species at risk include giant armadillos, giant anteaters, lowland tapirs, mountain lions, jaguars, Goeldi’s monkeys, Amazon River dolphins and Amazonian manatees. 

Despite substantial evidence that the state and oil companies acted negligently, which included extensive testimony from scientific experts and first-hand accounts from community members, the defense’s lawyers argued throughout the trial that the companies were not responsible. They claimed that the oil spill was an “unpreventable act of nature” and that the river would clean itself over time. They also claimed to have supplied adequate food and water to communities whose lands and drinking water were contaminated, but community members who received limited supplies over the past four months say the aid was wholly insufficient to survive on and came with strings attached. 

Maria Espinosa, lawyer for the case from GWC partner Amazon Frontlines, says, “The court’s decision is unacceptable. 27 000 Indigenous people are still in grave danger and facing the imminent risk of another oil spill. Throughout the trial, we have demonstrated how the Ecuadorian government and the oil companies violated the constitutional rights of Indigenous peoples and the rights of nature, and that extractivism is destroying people’s lives and the Amazon rainforest. To this day, there is still no guarantee of justice or reparations for those affected. We will appeal this ruling, and fight together until justice is delivered.”

This article comes from the frontline activities of Amazon Frontlines, whose mission it is to support indigenous peoples to defend their rights to land, life and cultural survival in the Amazon Rainforest. 

Amazon Frontlines

Amazon Frontlines is a non-profit organisation based in Lago Agrio, Ecuador that leverages technology, legal advocacy and movement building to support indigenous peoples to defend their rights to land, life and cultural survival in the Amazon Rainforest. For more information, visit www.amazonfrontlines.org

Global Wildlife Conservation

GWC conserves biodiversity on Earth through the safeguarding of wildlands and wildlife protection. It engages in biodiversity exploration, habitat conservation, protected area management, wildlife crime prevention and endangered species recovery. For more information, visit https://globalwildlife.org

Featured image by: Forest Guardians

Volunteers in Mauritius are working to keep leaking oil from a ship away from the island. In late July, the ship- believed to be carrying over 4 000 tons of fuel oil- ran aground on a coral reef off the Indian Ocean island. The oil spill threatens Mauritius, an island nation that depends heavily on tourism to make money.

Locals have been seen stuffing straw into fabric sacks to contain and absorb the oil, going against orders from the government, who has asked people to leave the clean-up to local authorities. Helicopters are attempting to move some of the fuel and diesel off the ship. Wildlife workers and volunteers rescued dozens of baby tortoises and rare plants from an island near the spill to the mainland.

The ship- called the MV Wakashio- ran aground at Pointe d’Esny, a known sanctuary for rare wildlife. The oil spill area also houses wetlands that have been designated as a site of international importance by the Mauritius Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. 

Mitsui OSK Lines, the operator of the ship, says that it tried to place its own containment booms around the vessel but due to rough seas, was unsuccessful. At least 1 000 tons of oil is thought to have leaked into the waters surrounding the island nation. 

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mauritius oil spill
The spill site on August 7, 2020 (Image: Maxar Technologies). 

Akihiko Ono, executive vice president of the ship operator, ‘profusely’ apologised for the spill and for the ‘great trouble we have caused’. He promised that the company would do ‘everything in their power to resolve the issue’. 

On August 7, Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of emergency and asked the international community for assistance. He added that the country ‘doesn’t have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships’. 

A police inquiry has been opened into possible negligence but environmentalists and residents have asked why it took so long for authorities to respond to the oil spill.

France has sent a military aircraft with pollution control equipment from its nearby island of Réunion. Japan announced it would dispatch a six-member team to assist the French efforts.

Happy Khamule, climate and energy manager from Greenpeace Africa, warned that thousands of animal species were ‘at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security and health’.

Heavy winds are expected to exacerbate the oil spill even farther along the island’s shore. The Mauritius Marine Conservation Society and other groups have warned that the oil spill cleanup could take much longer than expected. 

This is a developing story. Follow Earth.Org for more.

Featured image by: Reuben Pillay/Reubsvision.mu/Via Reuters

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has been ordered to shut down by August 5 so that an environmental impact assessment report can be undertaken. This is a rare occurrence for an operating pipeline, and marks a major accomplishment for environmental groups and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who have fought vigorously against its establishment. 

The Ruling 

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia terminated an easement that was granted by the US Army of Engineers that allowed Dakota Access to build a segment of the pipeline below Lake Oahe in North and South Dakota. This court previously determined that the Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it allowed the easement because it failed to produce an Environmental Impact Statement. 

The court has now said that the DAPL must be shut down and emptied whilst the environmental impact report is prepared. The Corps says it will take 3 months to prepare the report. 

American Indian tribes who reside near the DAPL have sought to prevent the pipeline from ever being built in the first place, and then have shut it down, for years. “Today they finally achieve that goal – at least for the time being,” Judge James Boasberg said at the ruling. 

Energy Transfer (ET), the developers of the DAPL, issued a statement saying the ruling was ‘ill-thought-out’ and is not supported by law or sound evidence related to the case. The company further stated that the Judge ‘exceeded his authority’. It added that shutting the pipeline would cause ‘increased environmental risks’ because crude oil would have to travel by rail instead. The company is planning to file a motion to stay the decision and potentially appeal to the Court of Appeals. 

ET further expressed that ‘shutting down this critical piece of infrastructure would throw our country’s crude supply system out of balance, negatively impact several significant industries, inflict more damage on an already struggling economy, and jeopardise our national security’. 

The court said in a 24-page order that ‘the seriousness of the Corps’ deficiencies outweighs the negative effects of halting the oil flow for the thirteen months’. 

Under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA), agencies are required to take the environmental consequences of their actions into account, in addition to permit approvals, before green-lighting projects. The court determined that there had not been sufficient consideration of the ‘impacts of an oil spill on fishing rights, hunting rights or environmental justice’. 

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What is the Dakota Access Pipeline?

The US$3.8 billion, 1 886 km-long pipeline stretches across four oil-rich states- North and South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois- and produces 570 000 barrels of crude oil a day. 

In December 2016, the Obama Administration ordered a full environmental review on the safety of the pipeline’s operations, the effect such operations have on the Standing Rock Sioux tribes’ livelihood, and on alternative routes that could potentially pose less of a risk to nearby communities. 

During Trump’s first week in office, the president signed an executive order to accelerate construction, which was later completed in June of 2017. 

Following this decision, many protesters boycotted the development with the aim of raising awareness on how the DAPL affects the integrity of spiritual camps set up near the Missouri river- namely, Sacred Stone, Oceti Sakowin, Red Warrior, and Rosebud Sicangu. 

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe also criticised the government for approving the DAPL construction without directly consulting them- a requirement under US law. Environmental activists defended the members’ advocacy against the pipeline due to the way in which it perpetuates fossil fuel production– raising grave environmental concerns. 

As the pipeline crosses beneath the Missouri river, north of the Standing Rock reservation, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe stressed how the pipeline would greatly contaminate the drinking water of communities downstream. Furthermore, the potential adverse effects on burial and prayer sites was also greatly emphasised.

The pipeline leaked at least five times in 2017. Spills threaten the wildlife living in the area, as well as soil and water. 

What Now?

Should the environmental impact assessment pass, the pipeline will continue to threaten the environment and cultural livelihoods of those who depend on the region. It is likely though, that the future fate of the pipeline depends on the results of the November elections in the US. 

Featured image by: Tony Webster

Russia has announced a national-level state of emergency after 21 000 tons of diesel fuel spilled from a reservoir that collapsed in late May. The spill has polluted large stretches of Arctic rivers- colouring tundra waterways bright red- and was caused by melting permafrost, according to Russian officials. While Russia has ordered a review of infrastructure in vulnerable zones, this oil spill incident highlights the danger of the climate crisis for Russia as areas locked by permafrost for centuries thaw amid rising temperatures. 

Norilsk Oil Spill: The Effects

The spill happened when a fuel tank at a power plant near the city of Norilsk collapsed. A subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer, owns the plant. According to reports, a criminal case has been launched, as there was reportedly a two-day delay in informing the Moscow authorities about the spill. Minister for Emergencies in Russia Yevgeny Zinichev claims that the plant spent two days trying to contain the oil spill before alerting his ministry, however Norilsk Nickel says that the incident was reported in a ‘timely and proper’ way.

The oil leaked at least 12km from the accident site, turning stretches of the Ambarnaya River deep red and has overall contaminated a 350 sq km area.The spill also polluted 180 000 sq metres of land before reaching the river, regional prosecutors said.

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russia oil spill
A gif showing the reach of the oil spill in Norilsk, Russia (Source: European Space Agency).

The Ambarnaya River feeds into Lake Pyasino, a major body of water and the source of the Pyasina River that is extremely important to the entire Taimyr peninsula. Satellite images released by the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos show that a large spot of reddish fuel travelled over 20km towards the lake from the spill site. 

President Vladimir Putin told Norilsk Nickel chief Vladimir Potanin that he expects the company to pay for clean-up operations. Potanin estimates that the operations will cost about US$146 million, on top of any fines, and says, “We will spend whatever is needed. We will return the ecosystem back to normal.” The country’s technical safety watchdog says that since 2016, it has been unable to check the condition of the reservoir, because the company said it was under repairs. 

Floating barriers erected on the river by responders are unable to stop most of the pollution, which can quickly dissolve or sink, according to Russia’s fisheries agency. 

The state of emergency means that extra forces are going to the area to assist with the clean-up operation, however environmental groups say that the scale of the spill and geography of the river mean it will be difficult to clean up. 

The area has been affected by decades of pollution from metals production and other activities in Norilsk, which is Russia’s most polluted city.

Environmentalists say that the spill is the worst such accident ever in the Arctic region and Alexei Knizhnikv, an expert from the World Wildlife Fund, says that the accident is believed to be the second largest in modern Russian history in terms of volume. 

He added that despite melting permafrost, the incident could have been avoided if the company followed the rules, such as erecting a barrier around its fuel reservoir to contain spillage.

Arctic permafrost has been melting in exceptionally warm weather for this time of year; Russia recently experienced its warmest winter temperatures ever recorded. Moscow reported temperatures 7.5 degrees Celsius above average and set 11 all-time daily temperature records. 

Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the world average. 65% of the country is covered by permafrost and the environment ministry warned in 2018 that the melting of permafrost threatens pipes and structures, as well as buried toxic waste, which can seep into waterways. This makes it all the more important that Russia follows through with its climate action targets. In September 2019, the nation formally ratified the Paris Agreement, saying that climate change could endanger key sectors like agriculture as well as the ‘safety of people living in areas with permafrost’ and has pledged to reduce emissions to 25 to 30% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Update, June 29: Norilsk Nickel has said that it has suspended workers at a metals plant who were responsible for pumping wastewater into nearby Arctic tundra. The workers dumped about 6 000 cubic metres of liquid used to process minerals at the facility. The plant says that it is impossible to determine how far the wastewater has dispersed.

Update July 31: Norilsk Nickel has been fined $2.1bn over the spill.

Featured image: ESA

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 the northeastern shores of Brazil with little explanation from the authorities. The president, Jair Bolsonaro, first pointed the finger at neighbouring 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.

Brazil Oil Spill Cause

‘Bilge dumping’ (when cargo vessels and tankers illegally dump oily “bilge water” into the ocean) could be the cause of the oil spill, but authorities in Brazil 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).  

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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. 

Brazil Oil Production

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 government of Brazil needs to implement corrective and proactive measures to prevent an accident like this oil spill 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

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