Argentina Strives to Clean Mystery Oil Spill in Patagonia

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, January 2, 2007 (ENS) – An enormous oil spill of unknown origin has washed ashore in Argentine Patagonia north of Comodoro Rivadavia, fouling beaches and threatening the area’s marine life, according to reports released in Buenos Aires by Chubut Environment Minister Monica Raimundo.

Comodoro Rivadavia is at the heart of one of Argentina’s main oil producing areas in Chubut province.

The four kilometer diameter oil slick struck the coast of Chubut province at Caleta Córdoba near an offshore oil loading platform where tankers line up to transport crude oil pumped locally to refineries in Buenos Aires about 1,740 kilometers to the north.

Tanker ready to take on oil
at the Termap facility Chubut province.
(Two photos courtesy Termap)

The platform is operated by Termap, Terminales Maritimas Patagonicas S.A. The corporation was formally accused before a court of justice by the province of Chubut in a formal proceeding on Friday, Raimundo said.

The corporations formally accused of the incident are Repsol-YPF, Sociedad Internacional Petrolera of Chile, and Pan American Energy Iberica that jointly hold the majority of Termap.

The Argentine government is analyzing satellite imagery to determine the cause of the spill, but has not yet located exactly where the oil originated.

The spill reached the coast Wednesday night, causing significant environmental damage and affecting sea birds and shellfish beds.

“The overall spill is made up of several slicks, two to three kilometers wide along a total extension of approximately 40 kilometers,” reports the local newspaper “El Chubut.”

Fearing an environmental disaster, officials have convened a federal-provincial crisis committee. Rescue teams have been sent to the area, and oil companies have been asked to report to the committee on their latest activities.

Oil holding tanks at the Termap
facility, Chubut province.

The crisis committee in Buenos Aires is made up of the environment secretary in coordination with Chubut province authorities, the Coast Guard and representatives from the regional oil corporation.

A team from the Hazardous Residues Office has been dispatched to investigate the accident and report on proposed sanctions and fines in line with current legislation.

Oil spill cleanup is taking place under the direction of the Argentine Navy. Since early Thursday morning several crews totaling a hundred people armed with buckets and shovels are working to collect as much of the oil as possible.

A team is working to contain the spread of the spill using solvents and dispersants and another group will assess the extent of the damage and report on possible compensation for the affected areas.

After visiting Caleta Cordova Wednesday, six days after the spill, Chubut Governor Mario Das Neves said that there has been a very important step forward in the task of remediation on the affected beaches. He said he hopes the investigation by the federal justice system to determine who is responsible for the spill will be successful.

An oiled Megellanic penguin
(Photo by Dee Boersma)

The International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW, based in the United States, has been asked to help manage the wildlife response and has sent veterinarians and oil spill responders to help rehabilitate affected wildlife.

The Argentine government is supporting the development of an on-site facility as well as supplies and equipment needed to care for animals and birds.

IFAW is working with the nonprofit Fundacion Patagonia Natural on-site. Currently the center is caring for 430 birds, while an estimated 500 birds have died.

IFAW says there are steamer ducks, Magellanic penguins, silvery grebes, cormorants and crested grebes among the birds in care. “The steamer ducks and Magellanic penguins are the highest conservation priority as both are listed as Near Threatened by Birdlife International,” said IFAW.

An organized search and collection of oiled animals is underway, and IFAW says oiled animals are coming in from as far as 40 kilometers away.

Patagonia is inhabited by penguins and many rare bird species. The president of a local citizens group, Rene Tula, described the situation to Mercopress as a “serious tragedy.”

Governor Das Neves said he is satisfied with the cleanup effort. “We are very happy with all the work that is being done in the remediation,” he said, “and the magnificent job that takes in all birds.”

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