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Heavy Waves From Volcanic Eruption Caused Oil Spill in Lima, Peru

oil pollution ventanilla spill
Oil on the beach at Ventanilla, Peru (Oceana Peru)

Published Jan 18, 2022 3:31 PM by The Maritime Executive

Heavy wave action from the eruption of the Hunga Tonga volcano caused a spill during tanker unloading operations at an offshore mooring buoy near Lima, Peru on Saturday, according to Peru's National Emergency Operations Center.

The spill affected three public beaches in Callao and Ventanilla, and beach closures have been put into effect. A government-organized cleanup effort is under way. 

The pollution has outraged local fishermen, who have held marches and sit-ins outside of Repsol's Pampilla Refinery, the operator of the mooring buoy. The environmental damage also has implications for beachside communities in Callao and Ventanilla. According to local officials, the refinery and the local captain of the port did not provide notification of the spill until well after the fact.

"We have seen a terrible stain on the sand at Cavero Beach," said Ventanilla mayor Pedro Spadaro, speaking to Exitosa. "We have seen quite a few dead animals and . . . the waves are black." 

According to Peruvian environment minister Ruben Ramirez, the spill has caused damage to biodiversity and could potentially have long-term health impacts.  An investigation is under way into the circumstances and Repsol could face fines of up to about $35 million, according to Ramirez's ministry. The Specialized Environmental Prosecutor's Office (FEMA) of Lima's northeast district has opened a criminal inquiry into the actions of refinery officials leading up to the spill. 

Peru's national parks agency, SERNANP, said that it is also investigating the impact of the spill in the Islotes de Pescadores group, a protected reserve of rocky islands just north of Lima. The area is an important refuge for seabirds, including the Humboldt penguin. Operations to clean oiled wildlife and mitigate the harm from the spill are under way along the shores of the 10-island chain, SERNANP said.

No warning issued

Separately, two women were killed Saturday when a wave struck their truck on a beach at Chiclayo, a small city located about 350 nm to the northwest of Lima.

Unlike most Pacific Rim nations, Peru did not issue a provisional warning of the potential for a tsunami after the massive eruption. On Saturday, shortly before heavy wave action occurred, the Peruvian Navy announced via social media that the "volcanic eruption in Nukualofa - Tonga . . . does not generate a tsunami on the Peruvian coast." The advisory asked the public "to remain calm and inform yourself through special notices."

The Peruvian Navy's Directorate of Hydrography and Navigation has apologized for failing to activate the nation's National Tsunami Warning System, which would have provided a measure of advance notice for coastal communities ahead of the unusually powerful wave activity. The Peruvian government's ombudsmen has opened an investigation into the navy's inaction. 

“Faced with an alleged lack of due diligence in the adoption of measures to safeguard the life and physical integrity of people, as well as their property . . . we opened an ex officio investigation of the Navy of the Peru," the ombudsmen's office said in a statement Monday.