Barbara Fraser
Dead fish from an oil spill in the Peruvian Amazon are mixed with oil-covered twigs gathered by local residents. Fish are vital to the villagers' diet and income.

Amazon Oil Spill Has Killed Tons of Fish, Sickened Native People

Barbara Fraser, EHN
7/26/14

Reprinted with permission from Environmental Health News.

CUNINICO, Peru—On the last day of June, Roger Mangía Vega watched an oil slick and a mass of dead fish float past this tiny Kukama Indian community and into the Marañón River, a major tributary of the Amazon.

Community leaders called the emergency number for Petroperu, the state-run operator of the 845-kilometer pipeline that pumps crude oil from the Amazon over the Andes Mountains to a port on Peru’s northern coast.

Local men were covered with oil after being hired to find the leak in the submerged pipeline. (Photo: Municipality of Urarinas)By late afternoon, Mangía and a handful of his neighbors—contracted by the company and wearing only ordinary clothing—were up to their necks in oily water, searching for a leak in the pipe. Villagers, who depend on fish for subsistence and income, estimated that they had seen between two and seven tons of dead fish floating in lagoons and littering the landscape.

“It was the most horrible thing I’ve seen in my life—the amount of oil, the huge number of dead fish and my Kukama brothers working without the necessary protection,” said Ander Ordóñez Mozombite, an environmental monitor for an indigenous community group called Acodecospat who visited the site a few days later.

This rupture of Peru’s 39-year-old northern crude oil pipeline has terrified Kukama villagers along the Marañón River. People’s complaints of nausea and skin rashes are aggravated by nervousness about eating the fish, concerns about their lost income and fears that oil will spread throughout the tropical forest and lakes when seasonal flooding begins in November. Cuninico, a village of wooden, stilt-raised, palm-thatched houses, is home to about 130 families but several hundred families in other communities also fish nearby.

Scaffolding holds a broken section of the oil pipeline. (Photo: Barbara Fraser)

Three weeks after they discovered the spill, the villagers still have more questions than answers about the impacts.

"It sounds like an environmental debacle for the people and the ecosystem,” said David Abramson, deputy director of the National Center of Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York.

“There is a need for public health and environmental monitoring at a minimum of four levels – water, fish, vegetation and the population," he said.

Kukama community leaders walk along the pipeline through a marshy area. (Photo: Barbara Fraser)Company officials at Petroperu did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Government officials have not officially announced how much crude oil spilled. However, in a radio interview, Energy and Mines Minister Eleodoro Mayorga mentioned 2,000 barrels, which is 84,000 gallons.

Indigenous leaders noted that the pipeline, which began operating again July 12 after the repairs, has a history of leaks.

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