A huge oil spill promises to block Venezuela=B4s economic artery on
Thursday, May 15, 1997

In the middle of the night of February 28, a Greek tanker, the Nissos
Amorgos, fractured its hull in the navigation channel of Lake Maracaibo.
In a matter of hour, 25,000 barrels of heavy oil spilled into the
waters. Heavy oil is known to contain highly toxic compounds. The
social, environmental, economic and political impact has since
mushroomed to such an extent that it is now threatening to at least
temporarily block the flow of oil from Venezuela to the rest of the

The accident did not only opened a breach in the ship's hull. It also
fractured the shield of impunity and incompetence with which government
bureaucrats had been able to operate this vital navigation channel,
through which 70 percent of Venezuela=B4s oil is exported. Venezuela is
the largest exporter of oil in the Western Hemisphere, produces 3
million barrels of oil a day, and exports nearly 2.5 million barrels in
crude and products to the international market.=20

Between February of 1996 and February of 1997, an average of one
accident has taken place in the navigation channel of Maracaibo Lake
every 40 days, an awesome record considering the unique importance of
this shipping highway to the Venezuelan economy. This time, however, the
endurance of the many ordinary people directly affected reached its
limits. Some 20,000 fishermen, members of FETRAPESCA, the federation of
fishermen unions, have decided to block the channel on Thursday, May 15.
It is a sign of protest for the way government officials and the
shipping industry have ignored their interests and claims. It is also an
action meant to call the attention of the international community on the
recurrent and dramatic impact of oil spills in the largest lake of South
America, extending over 13,280 square kilometers.

On the 15th of May, from 3,000 to as many as 5,000 fishing boats are
expected to block shipping traffic to or from Lake Maracaibo. Each boat
will carry a black flag, a sign of mourning for the irreversible damages
that has been caused to both people and the environment. The measure
will affect the flow of about 1.5 million barrels of oil that day alone,
with a value of 25 million dollars. The protest is being organized by
Albino Hernandez, who successfully organized the blockade of this same
channel 25 years ago, despite aggressive and public threats voiced by
the President and the military at the time. Ironically, it is the same
President who is now in office, Rafael Caldera, re-elected at a peak of
political turmoil three years ago.

In only two months since the spill took place, fishing in the Lake has
dropped to half its normal rate, representing a loss of about 40 million
dollars to fishermen alone. The loss to the industry has not been
quantified. On Monday, May the 5th, a local judge ruled on the
preventive embargo of property of the owners of the Nissos Amorgos, for
290 million dollars. The Attorney General has announced the introduction
of a lawsuit in the name of the Nation for violation of the Law of the
Environment. In the mean time, the fishermen have introduced a lawsuit
against the owners of the tanker for 130 million dollars.=20

The captain of the ship, Konstadinos Spiropulos, has been temporarily
detained, while obscure aspect of the case comes to the surface. The
incident took place almost in the same spot where another Greek tanker,
the Olympic Sponsor, punctured its hull on the 10th of March last year.
In that opportunity, however, the double bottom of the ship prevented a
spill. Nevertheless, it has called the attention of intelligence
services that both ships seem to belong to the same owners, and that one
of the official on duty when the Olympic Sponsor punctured its hull was
also on duty on another tanker, the Corellis, when it had a similar
accident in the same area a month later, on April 10. The theory of foul
play is thus under consideration, enhanced by the reported lobbying in
London and Washington for the de-certification of this navigation
channel, a major threat to the already shattered economic and political
stability of the country.

These accidents have occurred in the general area where a ship by the
name of The Explorer sank nine years ago. It is argued that rests of the
Explorer punctured the hull of the Nissos Amorgos. The navigation
channel is now being cleared of accumulated debris, at a cost of nearly
50,000 dollars a day. Due mainly to negligence, maintenance had been
ignored for over a year, causing the accumulation of sediments in the
order of 10 million cubic meters. This in turn has increased shipping
costs, due to the idle capacity of tankers caused by the reduction in
navigable depth to 34 feet.=20

The ecological damage derived from the spill of heavy oil from the
Nissos Amorgos is immense. It is expected to grow, leaving a trail of
desolation and despair, and seriously affecting reproductive and
biological processes in the area. This oil spill could be classified as
a major environmental disaster, affecting the ecosystem as well as vital
interests of local people. However, the Ministry of the Environment and
other relevant government authorities have openly attempted to conceal
the importance of the case, and have failed to properly inform the
general public about its magnitude and consequences. The action taken by
fishermen is therefore charged with political significance. It is the
awakening of people in defense of their legitimate rights, after decades
of abuse, and a challenge to the ineptitude and corruption of government
authorities who have lost the trust of the people they are supposed to

In a late attempt to calm the rage of local people, the Congress has
promised to declare the navigation channel as a National Security Zone,
according to Article 15 of the Law on Security and Defense. It also
plans to request from the national oil industry, PDVSA, a review of its
contingency plans, and an update of its infrastructure to handle
emergencies of this nature. Surprisingly enough, PDVSA's contingency
plans are limited to light oil, of little use in cases like this, where
heavy oil was spilled, sinking into the waters. This has prompted the
proposal from the Commission on the Environment of the Chamber of
Deputies for PDVSA to immediately update technology and contingency
plans, so as to be able to deals with eventualities of this nature.


Intertanko is an international association representing two thirds of
the independent fleet of tankers worldwide. Its President, Daglin Lunde,
argues that international agreements have been violated by the
preventive arrest of the captain of the Nissos Amorgos, by the=20
preventive embargo of the ship itself, and by the introduction of a
lawsuit by the Attorney General in the name of the country.=20

Venezuela is signatory to two agreements at the International Maritime
Organization, covering risks and compensation for accidental oil spills.
The first, subscribed 28 years ago, indicates a maximum compensation of
7.2 million dollars for civil responsibility, amount swiftly subscribed
by the insurance company of the Nissos Amorgos soon after the accident.
On the other hand, there is a Compensation Fund of 85 million dollars,
subscribed not by governments but by oil companies and importers, and
created to respond to demands and lawsuits. According to Lunde, the
Compensation Fund has been used in 70 cases already, and has been
instrumental to resolve most such cases out of court. Lunde does not
understand why these mechanisms are not considered sufficient by
Venezuela in the case of the Nissos Amorgos.=20


Maracaibo Lake has become a disaster area not only from the reiterating
oil spills from tankers. During at least half a century it has been the
object of serious contamination with urban, industrial and agricultural
waste, erosion and sedimentation. Spills also occur regularly from the
many oil wells in the area. Just one month before the scandal of the
Nissos Amorgos, simultaneous spills from two wells were detected,
ironically named Mosquito 2 and Mosquito 3. By the time the spills were
detected, these wells had been leaking their lethal dose of "the devil's
excrement" [as oil is often referred to in Venezuela] into the lake for
over two weeks, seriously damaging neighboring mangroves and local
wildlife. The impact of this and similar spills could have been
prevented or minimized, had there been an efficient monitoring system in
place by the oil industry. Mosquito 3 had been shut down for 10 years.
No one noticed that one whole kilometer of oil-duct leading to this well
had been stolen, as well as complementary equipment to control the flow
of oil.

This story if far from over. Nevertheless, one conclusion to be drawn so
far is the importance of civic action as a mechanisms to overcome the
incompetence of government bureaucracies, and their tendency to come to
agreements without due consideration for the plight of those directly
affected by incidents of this nature. No longer will people around
Maracaibo Lake become passive victims of government inaction, or of the
lack of compliance by the oil and the shipping industry with national
and international regulations on the environmental and social impact of
oil spills. Black Thursday is expected to become a powerful political
symbol of what people can achieve in defense of their legitimate rights,
in a country where basic human rights have been consistently abused for
Julio Cesar Centeno, PhD
Las Tapias, Edif. Carreto    =20
Pent House                              Tel. +58-74-714576
PO Box 750                             Fax +58-74-714576
Merida - Venezuela       Email: