The weekend in Brazil was marked by more heart-breaking images of animals covered in crude oil and local people in northeastern Brazil trying to reduce the impact of the oil spill on that stretch of the long, Brazilian coast. The spill was first spotted in early September, but governmental inertia has allowed it to contaminate more than 2,000 km of the coast, with deadly impact on wildlife, while also putting the thriving tourism business in the region at risk.
“What is happening here is a tragedy. We’ve never seen anything like it, so it is difficult to estimate the impact. Any information now will be brutally underestimated because there is a lot of oil being washed ashore still,” Cláudio Sampaio, an oceanographer and professor at the federal university of Alagoas, told Huffington Post Brasil.
The Ministry of Environment did not put into practice a protocol for oil spills that was compiled in 2013 and which brings together different departments and resources to stop the spill from contaminating the coastline. Ricardo Salles, the minister of environment, has been unanimously criticized by environmentalists and local politicians, who say they are completely abandoned by the federal government. The work has been done by volunteers without proper equipment and without leadership.
“Crude oil can cause irritation and allergy. Many volunteers are working without gloves, without proper shoes. Often without masks to protect their eyes. This can cause an irritation of the eyes and respiratory airways. All of this needs to be informed to volunteers. I saw a fisherman with a bag in his hand removing oil from the beach. It is very worrying,” said Sampaio.
Along the coast, municipalities have released staff from work to help remove the oil from the areas where people live off fishing and tourism. Despite the economic impact that is to come, the Minister of Tourism, who is currently under investigation for corruption has said not a word about the incident.
Last week, the public prosecutor (called MPF in Brazil) filed a motion against the federal government for failing to activate the contingency plan for oil spills. Created in 2013, it is a guide on how to proceed when an oil spill takes place.
“In the face of the current situation, the plan should have been put into practice on August 30 or September 02, when the first oil spills reached the coast of the Northeast. So far, they have done nothing,” says Ricardo Menghini, of São Paulo University’s Oceanographic Institute.
He adds the plan also details how vulnerable ecosystems must be prioritized to protect them from the oil. “Coral reefs and mangrove swamps are nurseries for several marine animals. They are highly bio-diverse ecosystems. You cannot protect 2,000 km of coastline but with a plan like that you can prioritize more sensitive areas,” he added.
A document called Cartas de Sensibilidade Ambiental a Derramamentos de Óleo (Cartas SAO), compiled by previous ministerial administrations, list the priority areas. Researchers are deeply concerned the spill may reach Abrolhos, a region that houses the largest reef diversity in the South Atlantic.
Because of its stickiness, crude oil is hard to remove and ends up on other beaches with the tide. There is also the impact of the oil that gets dissolved as it cannot be removed manually. The dissolved oil will contaminate small animals, who will be eaten by bigger animals and this way enter the food chain. The biggest hope is that the oil is diluted by the sea water and gets carried away from the shore.
So far, the official death toll is 13 turtles and one bird, but experts estimate this is only a fraction of the total number of animals killed by the oil since many of them will have died in deep sea. Yesterday, distressing video footage of a bird caked in oil viralized on social media. According to the Intercept news website, the chick who was with the adult bird did not survive.
Uma ave caiu no óleo que estava sendo retirado de uma praia em Maragogi, Alagoas. Ela foi encaminhada pelo Ibama ao Instituto Biota, para receber atendimento. Um filhote que estava com ela não sobreviveu. #OleoNoNordeste pic.twitter.com/uWjKbp2itk
— The Intercept Brasil (@TheInterceptBr) October 20, 2019