An oil spill is the release of a liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment, especially the marine ecosystem, due to human activity, and is a form of pollution. The term is usually given to marine oil spills, where oil is released into the ocean or coastal waters, but spills may also occur on land.
For over one month now, an unprecedented extensive area along the shoreline of Brazil’s Northeast Region has been hit by an oily substance in the form of lumps of black tar, which origin remains unknown.
Substantial oil slicks were first spotted since at least 30 August 2019, but it was only weeks later they realised that the pollution was widespread and gradually reached the entire shoreline along the northeastern coast of the South Atlantic Ocean, heading south.
According to the federal environmental agency IBAMA, more than 70 municipalities in the nine Northeastern states – Alagoas, Bahia, Ceará, Maranhão, Paraiba, Pernambuco, Piaui, Rio Grande do Norte and Sergipe – have been reached by the oil spill in the course of recent weeks. The affected area spans over 1,370 nautical miles across sandy beaches, mangroves, reefs, and rocky coasts and varied fauna and flora, extending from Cururupu in the state of Maranhão to Arempebe in Bahia soon to reach the metropolitan area of Salvador, Northeast’s largest city, and beyond.
To date, more than 130 tonnes of oil waste has been collected on the many affected beaches, while oil-soaked sea turtles are being washed on the shores of the north-eastern coast, many of them already dead. Fish contamination and mortality and even dolphin are also being reported.
Petrobras stated that representative samples of the substance were tested, and it was concluded that the product that currently pollutes the pristine north-eastern beaches is crude oil, neither produced nor imported by Brazil.
A study by the Institute of Geosciences of the UFBA, in partnership with the UFS, points out that the oil is of Venezuelan origin.
According to the Brazilian environment minister Ricardo Salles, based on an alleged match between the samples tested and Venezuelan crude, it is likely that the product in question actually came from Venezuela, possibly carried on a vessel sailing near the Brazilian coast that accidentally or otherwise discharged it.
Official investigations Brazilian Navy’s DPC has opened an administrative enquiry to determine the source of the oil spill. The procedure includes analysis of maritime traffic data, information collected by naval ships and aircrafts passing or patrolling the area.
Navy’s CISMAR is investigating maritime traffic in the region, comprising an area of about 36,000 square nautical miles in Brazil’s exclusive economic zone, with an emphasis on oil tankers. In just one month, CISMAR identified 140 tankers, some of which are being notified by the maritime authority to provide information.
The maritime authority – DPC – is also assisting the environmental agencies in the pollution response and conducting sea and air patrols; however, so far, no trace of oil has been found in the open sea, only in the coastal area near the beaches.
In accordance with the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage and the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation, both signed by Brazil, the fines for oil pollution can reach R$ 50 million, without prejudice to other administrative and criminal sanctions and the polluter’s strict responsibility to fully repair environmental damage.
Year by year the shipping industry has been adopting good practices which consequently results in a substantial reduction of oil spill incidents. The industry is adopting measures aimed at the reduction of the environmental impact, such as IMO 2020.