Colombia’s Ecopetrol oil spill
Ecopetrol’s troubling history[edit | edit source]
Ecopetrol SA is the state-owned petroleum company of Colombia, known since 2003 as a restructured Empresa Colombiana de Petróleos operating under the authority of the country’s Ministry of Mines and Energy. Ecopetrol is the largest corporation in Colombia and one of Latin America’s top four petroleum companies, with multiple oil fields including La Cira-Infantas and Caño Limón Field. In May 2017, Ecopetrol and U.S.-based Anadarko jointly announced the largest gas discovery in Colombia in 28 years.
In addition to more than 8,100 kilometers of pipeline and various ports, Ecopetrol operates the scandal-ridden Reficar refinery at Cartagena and one in Barrancabermeja, where a March 2018 oil spill caused extensive environmental damage. The Barrancabermeja refinery is in a northern Andean province near the border with Venezuela; it is home to 2 million people, with 18 percent of them living in poverty.
The Ecopetrol oil spill’s impact on people and wildlife was preceded by the company’s reputation for human rights violations. For example, in 2016, Colombian NGO The José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective Corporation (CCAJAR), an affiliate of International Federation of Human Rights, joined FIDH and PASO Internacional in detailing extensive human and environmental costs in Ecopetrol operations. The petroleum company and its Bermuda-registered subsidiary, Black Gold RE, also were named in the 2017 Paradise Papers, an effort of more than 100 journalists to expose global tax havens and corruption.
Oil spill of March 2018[edit | edit source]
On March 2, 2018, the Lizama 158 oil well operated by Ecopetrol some 100 kilometers to the east of Barrancabermeja began leaking crude oil into the Magadalena Medio region – which takes its name from Colombia’s principal river, the 1,500 kilometer Magdalena. Ecopetrol assured Colombian officials it was controlling the leak, but efforts to cap the crude-spewing well were unsuccessful and the leak continued for 25 days. The National Agency of Environmental Licenses (ANLA) claims 24,000 barrels of black crude spread across 24 kilometers of environmentally sensitive land and waters, and the rural communities of the Santander region that depend on them. Conservationists say it is the worst such disaster in Colombia in decades, and has contaminated the critical watershed that flows to Magdalena. Worse still is that the government claims Ecopetrol disregarded warnings about the potential for leaks.
Impacts to ecosystem and wildlife[edit | edit source]
Julio Carrizosa, a leading Colombian environmental scientist, described the damage as unprecedented in his country. A 24-kilometer stretch of the Lizama River and 20 kilometers of the Sogamoso River were heavily polluted, and the Magdalena threatened. More than 2,400 animals – including birds and fish – have died in an area known for its biodiversity; the Magdalena River supports 2,735 species, including the grey-legged night monkey as well as other mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Opponents of a Chinese-led dam project on the Magdalena say 103 bird species, 13 reptile species, and three mammal species are already in danger of extinction, leading them to counter any impacts to ecosystem damage. Plant life also was at risk from the spill, with at least 1,080 tree species exposed to the contamination.
Because of the oil spill, Ecopetrol and Colombian authorities called on the conservation group Cabildo Verde to assist in protecting wildlife exposed to contamination and injury. Ecopetrol said 1,357 animals were rescued, and received veterinary care at shelters set up in Puerto Wilches and hard-hit La Fortuna.
Human health and safety concerns[edit | edit source]
La Fortuna is a village of about 600 people, set along streams of the Magdalena in the Barrancabermeja district. They are among the 40 percent of Colombians – some 45 million people – who rely on the river. When the toxic Ecopetrol oil contamination reached their shores, it impacted an entire lifestyle. The Community Action Board in La Fortuna said they rely on the river for drinking water, bathing, fishing and more. “We are afraid, we see the destruction so great,” said board delegate Daisy Triviño Camargo. The government evacuated 70 families for health and safety reasons, but locals say far more are affected.
Poisoned water also affected food security in the neighboring fishing villages of Puerto Wilches, Puente Sogamoso and Buenavista. People have complained of headaches, vomiting and other health problems. In addition to fish needed for food, some livestock also died after being exposed to contaminated water. "I have practically nothing to eat, we have lived through the river all our lives and the contamination has already reached the Magdalena,” said resident Elkin Cala in an interview with Colombia’s Noticias Uno.
Colombia’s regulators respond[edit | edit source]
Ecopetrol maintained that its response to the spill was adequate and immediate, but the government disputes their claims. The ANLA says it was notified the next day after the oil spill began and Ecopetrol initiated cleanup efforts. By March 12, it was clear that the damage was more extensive than initially reported and Ecopetrol was not controlling the leak. Containment dams placed to keep contaminants from reaching water supplies were breached during a strong rainstorm on March 20, the firm said; Ecopetrol’s president Felipe Bayón also suggested a March 1 earthquake may have caused the failure.
On March 22, the ANLA opened an inquiry into the Ecopetrol case, noting concern about the operation of remaining active wells that surrounded Lisama 158. By March 31, the ANLA was preparing charges against Ecopetrol for the contamination damage and its failure to properly respond to the emergency.
The company was likely to face sanctions, as well as closer scrutiny given its overall scandalous history. What’s more, a 2016 government audit found 30 abandoned wells in the region were at risk of breaking. Part of the investigation will center on Ecopetrol’s failure to notify ANLA that the Lisama 158 unit was out of service for mechanical and construction failures beginning in February 2017. Additionally, the agency said, Ecopetrol said the situation was controlled on March 3, failed to communicate the real magnitude of the event, and consequently interfered with the ANLA’s authority to monitor the spill.
The ANLA demanded extensive air quality, soil and water testing reports and – among other things – support for wildlife conservation crews. Ecopetrol also was held responsible for any medical care required by LaFortune residents and surrounding communities, and compensation for their losses.
Although Ecopetrol initially placed 13 control points and 56 barriers, along with containment dikes, it was not until March 30 that the company confirmed that no more crude, gas or contaminated mud was pumping from Lisama 158, and said the spill was 90 percent contained. In a short video, the oil and gas firm also denied some of the contamination reports and said information circulating was “fake news.”
Colombian Environment Minister Luis Gilberto Murillo, however, found the situation all too real. “If we find that Ecopetrol hid information that would have prevented this incident, they will face drastic sanctions,” he warned. “This is very serious and cannot happen again.”