Save our Shores: The Oil Disaster in Brazil’s North East

By Nate Allen.

“This is the biggest (marine) environmental disaster in the history of Brazil, if we consider the length of the coastline that has been affected”, said biologist Flavio Lima. Brazil’s Northeast 2,000 km shoreline has been splattered with oil, from large swathes to millions of tiny blobs that are the size of a pebble. Scientists estimate it will take decades to recuperate. And yet for over a month, deliberate inaction was the response by Bolsonaro. If the Northeast receives 20,000+ soldiers/workers with additional little shovels & dust pans for the local population, it can greatly reduce the long-term negative impact on species and communities. Immediate international pressure is once again needed on Brazil’s federal government to quicken up this slow cleanup.

On the riverbanks and the edges of the mangroves, time is simply running out to pick up much of this oil. As biologist Francisco Kelmo stated, “The first step is removing this oil as fast as possible. The faster we remove it, the easier the recuperation process.” Oil removal from rivers, mangroves, and corals should be top priority.

I live in Sergipe, the state at the center of the oil spill that has hit all nine Northeast states in Brazil. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been scoping out the oil debris on the beaches, rivers, and mangroves nearby. Unfortunately, due to the mass amount of oil and inaction by Bolsonaro, most of this oil has been sitting out for weeks. On the beaches, millions of pebble-like oil debris is drying out and breaking apart into even smaller pieces, becoming a permanent part of the same sand where our families make castles. In the riverbanks and mangroves, the oil is fading quickly into rocks and disappearing within the mud. What especially complicates the cleanup of riverbanks and mangroves is the often less than two-hour period to access them during low tide. We need to delicately remove as much of this oil debris as fast as humanly possible. Machines won’t work in most places. Humans with small shovels will.

The first state hit by the offshore oil spill was Paraíba on August 30th. The second was Pernambuco on September 2nd. Despite a second attack, Bolsonaro did not mention it or attempt to act to prevent and minimize the oil spill. As his silence in September rolled on to October, so did the oil onto the beaches of all nine Northeast states. Beyond the ecological damage, the public health concerns of this oil spill on beachgoers were obvious, especially on children. Yet no words or action came out from Brazil’s capital. Brazil went from an August of Amazon Fires Raging to a September Silence on a Northeast Oil Spill.

Bolsonaro’s silence was finally broken on October 5th, a day after a giant oil patch hit here in Aracaju, Sergipe. The oil spill was now too big to ignore. He finally publicly addressed the spill and opened an investigation, led by the Marines & Federal Police. Since then, he has almost exclusively focused on blaming Venezuela for the spill and given near zero attention on prevention (e.g. water barriers) and cleanup (soldiers/workers), only releasing a few thousand soldiers/workers to help out. Over the past two months, most of the cleanup has been done by volunteers, municipalities, and states.

Bolsonaro later stated that he knew of the spill since September 2nd, yet he chose to stay silent on it for an entire month. He also said he had received confidential chemical analysis by the Navy and Petrobras of the oil showing it had Venezuela’s “signature”. When did he find this “signature” info out? I ask because he seems to care far more about blaming Venezuela than preventing and cleaning up. It’s almost as if he wants more damage done to the Northeast so that he can use it as ammunition against Venezuela. Maybe he thinks it might end up helping his political idol win in Florida.

Bolsonaro has also had a longstanding open war with the Northeast. The Northeast was the only region that voted against him, and by a huge ratio of 2-1. Here in Sergipe, he lost in every one of the 75 municipalities. During the past week, I’ve heard many say that if this oil spill came to the south (e.g. Copacabana, Ipanema, Buzios, etc.), the federal government and military would be on the shores immediately picking it up.

U.S. oil sanctions on Venezuela might be partly responsible for this oil spill, though Bolsonaro is trying to spin it the other way around. U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and Iran are leading to many oil transporters turning off their signal when transporting their oil from those locations in order to avoid being tracked by U.S. satellites. These ships are called “ghost ships” or “dark ships”. Russia usually ships Venezuela’s oil, but Southeast Asian countries also are among the only other countries in the world that still buy Venezuelan oil, despite the U.S. sanctions. One hypothesis, which was also mentioned by Brazil’s environmental minister, is that this spill might have come from a Bangladesh ghost ship delivering oil from Venezuela to Asia, when in the South Atlantic it either sunk or was involved in a leaky ship-to-ship oil transfer. This hypothesis is based on the fact that two barrels recently showed up on the shore of Sergipe on October 11th. The Hindi word “Ekata” was written on them. “Ekata” is also the name of a decommissioned ship, whose last position was in Bangladesh in 2017. These barrels also had a lubricant label manufactured by Shell, although an analysis by Federal University of Sergipe concluded that they could not discared that the barrels were not related to the same oil that was found on the beach, which contradicted the Navy’s conclusion that the barrels were not related to the oil spill. Even if this Asian Ghost Ship Hypothesis turns out correct, then U.S. sanctions may have played a role, as that ship might have gone through the Panama Canal instead.

As Bolsonaro was busy blaming Venezuela yet completely ignoring the cleanup, questions were raised on why he wasn’t implementing the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (English summary here), which was established in 2013. It outlines strategies, responsibilities, actions, locations, etc. for an oil spill. This plan is especially important as Brazil’s oil & gas offshore fields account for 94% of its total production (95% oil & 80% gas) from nearly 700 offshore fields. We now know why Bolsonaro was ignoring the plan. Last April, he apparently dismantled the committee in charge of implementing the plan! By the way, Bolsonaro is currently expanding offshore drilling into more controversial areas that have a higher risk of spill, making such a plan and committee that more vital.

A month late and without a plan or committee, what was Bolsonaro’s response for an oil spill that spanned 2,000 km and nine states? He only sent 1,583 soldiers to help, less than 0.5% of ~350,000 active. The state-owned oil company Petrobras provided 1,700 environmental agents. To put this help in perspective, the state of Sergipe alone needs that number of extra workers. Since I live in Sergipe, I’ll share what we’ve been through, as each state has their own unique challenges with this oil spill.

Aracaju (Oct. 25). Nate Allen.

In late September, Sergipe started getting oil, but it wasn’t until October 4th when it started to get out of control. Two days later, Sergipe declared a state of emergency. All of the state’s beaches had gotten badly hit by oil. It was nearly impossible to walk on most of the beaches without stepping on oil. There were millions of little oil blobs the size of pebbles.

There was also a huge fear in Sergipe that the oil would move into the mouth of the rivers and mangroves as well. During high tide, the salt water from the ocean often reverses the water flow at the mouth and ocean water overflows into the surrounding mangroves. This high tide brings the oil into the mouth of the river where it can potentially devastate the unique ecosystems and economies that depend heavily on fish and seafood, especially crabs. Sergipe’s famous tourist attraction is a giant crab statue.

The day after Sergipe declared a state of emergency, Brazil’s environmental minister came here to see it firsthand. Many assumed that after he left, he would send massive amount of resources and workers to the state. Yet a week later, Sergipe had received little help from the federal government, with less than 100 federal workers sent. It barely made a dent. The environmental minister was also denying Sergipe buoys (water barriers), despite our state being highly dependent on many rivers which empty out into the Atlantic, including the big São Francisco.

To the north, the São Francisco River makes up Sergipe’s border with Alagoas. Unfortunately, the mouth of the São Francisco River has already been contaminated with oil debris. The horror was reported in BBC News Brasil article, “Arrival of oil threatens fauna, flora and sustenance of families at the mouth of the São Francisco River.” Even though the article is in Portuguese, the images get the message across. One of the local merchants said, “The oil debris has turned into a thick paste, descending to bottom where it becomes invisible. That is, it’s sinking”. This sinking oil is exactly what Sergipe had been fearing.

The amount of oil debris sinking in the mouth of São Francisco could have been diminished. It wasn’t until last week (Oct. 14) when the federal government finally decided to increase the amount of water released from the huge upstream reservoir that passes down the hydroelectric dam Xingu (800 to 1300 m³/s). This extra water flow lessens the amount of oil debris entering the river’s mouth. Actions like this that could’ve been taken a month ago, but are just now being undertaken. I’ve taken the ferry across the mouth of the São Francisco, between Piaçabuçu (Alagoas) and Brejo Grande (Sergipe). It is breathtaking. It is also home to the Quilombo of Brejão dos Negros. To think that these communities and this ecological treasure could be permanently contaminated with oil is heartbreaking.

To the south, just down from the Sergipe-Bahia border, the Itapicuru River had already been contaminated with oil debris. In the town of Conde where the Itapicuru River meets the Atlantic, Brazil’s oil company Petrobras had earlier trained forty residents earlier on managing the buoys. Yet a week went by, but no buoys arrived by the time it got contaminated. The rivers in this region of Brazil are beloved by many of its citizens, as it is a source of nourishment for the tummy as well as the soul. In fact, just a few months ago, I helped spread the ashes of my late father-in-law in the Itapicuru River. It is where he had requested his remains to flow when he died. The rivers are a sacred place to many.

Since oil had already entered in the rivers to both the north and south of Sergipe, we were desperately trying to get more buoys for our other major rivers. Yet the federal environmental minister was denying us buoys. His excuse was that the buoys available were designed to stop thinner oil, not the thicker oil which we were receiving that tends to drift near the bottom. Yet the director of Sergipe’s environmental agency responded, “We’ve seen results from the buoys we’ve already put in. We know that they won’t guarantee 100%, but they can considerably decrease the amount of oil debris in sensitive areas.”

We were being blocked by our own federal environmental minister in receiving buoys that could help block some of the oil! But Sergipe didn’t back down. A federal prosecutor in Sergipe sued the federal government for more buoys, and a federal judge in Sergipe gave the federal government a 48-hour deadline to deliver the buoys, or else they would get fined daily. The lawsuit woke up the nation to the inaction by the federal government. The smallest state had just charged straight at the federal government. This lawsuit also encouraged other Northeastern states to sue the federal government too.

With his back against the wall, the environmental minister finally released more buoys. The next day, one of the buoys was pulled away by the strong currents. Yet instead of finding solutions to help the state hold these barriers in place, the environmental minister went to twitter to make fun of Sergipe for losing it. Yes, in the middle of an environmental catastrophe, our environmental minster mocks us while attempting to hold back resources. This same minister is now alluding to Greenpeace being the potential source for the oil spill. I can’t imagine there is a more sinister environmental minister on the planet.

Unfortunately, the buoys came too late and the oil already made its way up most of the rivers and into the mangroves. To be clear, oil would have likely reached the mangroves with the extra buoys, but likely a lot less. Oil has moved kilometers upstream through a primary tributary (Poxim River) onto the riverbanks of a city park (Parque dos Cajueiros). This means kilometers of mangroves have already been contaminated. This is a tragedy. We need people cleaning up this oil around the edges of the mangroves (and where possible inside), before this oil becomes further integrated into the mud of the mangroves. I’ve already noticed the changes in just one week. Before, much of the oil on the riverbanks and mangrove edges stuck out with shiny liquid which reflected brightly the sunlight. Whereas now, much of this same oil debris is hard to see as it is becoming darker and sinking deeper into the mud. Every day that this oil is allowed to remain on the shore, the harder it becomes to find.

Speaking of hard to find – President Bolsonaro has yet to visit the greatest marine catastrophe in Brazil’s history. Super Minister Moro, who oversees the Federal Police investigating the spill, has also not visited. Instead, Bolsonaro and Moro traveled last week to the south of the Brazil, where they played around with their favorite toy. They shot guns in a new rifle training center.

Bolsonaro then left the country to start his overseas trip, which he is currently on. His absence makes the vice president the acting president. What did the acting president do in his first 48 hours with the new powers he had? He activated 5,000 Army soldiers to help clean up the shores! Although this additional 5,000 is far short of the 20,000+ soldiers/workers likely needed in the Northeast, it is double what Bolsonaro did in two months.

Bolsonaro’s no-to-slow response to this oil spill is identical to the Amazon fires. On August 10th, the infamous “Day of Fire” started the intentional setting fires to show support for Bolsonaro’s agricultural agenda. Two weeks later he said, “Forty men to fight a fire? There aren’t the resources. This chaos has arrived.” Two days later, after an intense international cry and threats of boycotts over his deliberate inaction, he sent over 40,000 soldiers to fight the fires, which was 1,000 times more than what was previously unaffordable. This costal oil spill in the Northeast is in need of similar help – tens of thousands of soldiers/workers with small shovels as well as extra shovels and supplies for local volunteers.

Please put more pressure on Brazil’s federal government to help clean up the oil spill in the Northeast before more of it becomes permanently stuck in our shores, which kills marine animals like turtles and crabs as well as risks the water we drink and swim in, and contaminates the sand we make castles out of.