Peru on Saturday declared an environmental emergency to battle an oil spill caused by a tsunami due to a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific.
The stunningly powerful Jan. 15 eruption of an undersea volcano in Tonga unleashed tsunami waves around the Pacific Ocean and as far away as the US.
In Peru, the oil spill near Lima has fouled beaches, killed birds and harmed the fishing and tourism industries.
With its 90-day decree, the Peruvian government said it is to undertake “sustainable management” of 21 beaches tarred by 6,000 barrels of oil that spilled from a tanker ship unloading at a refinery in Ventanilla at the time of the waves.
One aim of the decree is to better organize the agencies and teams working in the aftermath of the disaster, the Peruvian Ministry of Environment said.
Peruvian Minister of Foreign Trade and Tourism Roberto Sanchez estimated that economic losses total more than US$50 million, all sectors combined.
The government is demanding payment of damages from the Spanish energy giant Repsol, which owns the refinery.
The environment ministry said that 174 hectares of sea, beaches and natural reserves were affected.
Crews have been working for days to clean up the spill.
However, the ministry said it issued the emergency decree because the crude still in the water was still spreading, reaching 40km from the spot of the original spill.
“The spill amounts to a sudden event of significant impact on the coastal marine ecosystem, which has major biological diversity,” the ministry said.
Over the short term, Repsol is responsible for emergency cleanup operations, it said.
Repsol has said that the spill occurred because of the freak waves caused by the eruption.
The company said it is not responsible for the spill, because the government gave no warning that there might be rough waters from that undersea blast.
On Saturday, Repsol issued a statement outlining the cleanup operation by 1,350 people using big-rig trucks, skimmers, floating containment barriers and other equipment.
Repsol said it is “deploying all efforts to attend to the remediation of the spill.”
In addition to the fishing industry, Peru’s tourism sector has taken a major blow, including everything from restaurants to beach umbrella rentals.
“In a normal season, between January and March, 5 million people visit the affected beaches. The economic loss is immense,” Sanchez said, adding that thousands of jobs had been affected and the tourism sector was “mortally wounded.”
On the pier in the town of Ancon north of Lima, only the crew members of larger vessels that fish on the high seas continued to work, while the fish stalls were empty, because there are no longer any customers.
“The fish more than anything comes out with the smell of oil, and people don’t buy it, they don’t eat it because they are afraid of getting poisoned by it, by the oil spill,” said Giovana Rugel, 52, who sells fish at the entrance to the Ancon pier.
Last week, fishers and other local people who live off the sea and tourism staged protests over the sudden loss of their livelihood.
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