Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Report for the World host newsroom Convoca. It was made possible thanks to the support of Journalism Fund Europe.
What you need to know:
- In January of 2022 an oil spill at a refinery off the coast of Ventanilla, Peru contaminated the sea and the surrounding coastline, leaving hundreds of fishers without work overnight.
- A commission created by the Peruvian Congress concluded the owner of the refinery, the Spanish oil multinational Repsol, was to blame for the spill. However, the company has pushed back against any sanctions and has sought to delay or stop the compensation payments for fishers, even though studies show that hydrocarbons are still present in the sea and coastal areas affected by the spill.
- The fishers’ representatives claim the government’s cleaning efforts were improvised and their analysis of the environmental and health impact on the communities are insufficient and don’t show the toll it has taken on them.
- Fishers also report multiple health and mental health issues as a result of the spill and their struggle to find new ways to support their families.
- No resolution is on the horizon as fishers have taken to the streets to protest after Repsol has denied their request to negotiate.
Twenty-one months after the oil spill on the coast of Ventanilla, Alejandro Huaroto, diver and fisherman, hasn’t forgotten the smell of oil.
On the night of January 15, 2022, everyone in Puerto Pachacútec, a small fishing enclave of Ventanilla located two hours from Lima, noticed that smell in the air. They thought that someone was painting boats and that the breeze was carrying into their homes the strong aroma of some chemical.
Alejandro remembers that it smelled like burned cooking oil. At one point the fishermen began to wonder in their WhatsApp group who had decided to carry out such an annoying task at that hour. But nobody had any idea. They went to sleep without knowing that at five o’clock in the afternoon, more than 11,000 barrels of oil had been spilled into the sea during an unloading operation of the Italian-flagged Mare Doricum Tank Ship, in the maritime terminal La Pampilla No 2, managed by Refinería La Pampilla, property of the Spanish group Repsol. The spill would affect more than 8 million square meters in land and marine areas, including two Protected Natural Areas.
Although a commission formed by the Peruvian Congress to investigate the environmental emergency concluded that Repsol had responsibility for what happened, the case hasn’t progressed much: so far the Spanish company has appealed all the sanctions, it hasn’t presented an Environmental Rehabilitation Plan and has ongoing disputes related to the compensation for the inhabitants of the affected districts. Meanwhile, the role of the Peruvian government remains insufficient, slow and in some sections even indolent. Experts point out that no adequate strategies for monitoring physical and mental health have been implemented, nor has it taken action to identify urgent issues such as the presence of hydrocarbons at sea, sediments and marine biomass. The fishermen are still waiting for the day, when their sea is finally healed.
Sea, oil and sadness
According to a report by the Energy and Mining Investment Supervisory Agency (Osinergmin), the spill originated at the discharge pipe, a piece of infrastructure that was repaired in 2013 but which, according to the investigation, was installed in the wrong direction. Although Convoca requested the reports of previous audits made to the underwater structure, this request was denied on the grounds that the information was not public. Congress’ final report concluded that there are signs of responsibility on Osinergmin’s part in the Ventanilla spill. The same document also determined that the intervention of the Peruvian State, even before the spill, had been minimal. It also points out that the actions of the unloading of hydrocarbons were carried out without the presence of that supervisory body, the National Port Authority and the General Directorate of Captaincy and Coast Guard.
According to the report, what happened after the environmental catastrophe was a succession of negligence and failures of the containment plan that Repsol was supposed to implement in cases like this. By the morning of January 16, the spill had affected 46 beaches, including those of Cavero, Ancón and Bahía Blanca.
In a video recorded by the fisherman Alejandro Huaroto in Bahía Blanca, made without imagining what would happen and with the simple objective of registering a day of fishing, you see the bathers look surprised at the dark spot that expands over the sea. At one point there are two children playing with the wet sand without paying close attention to what was happening. Moments earlier two rescuers who ventured a hundred meters offshore had returned with their oars stained with oil. In the following hours, Alejandro would continue to record the spill from the cliffs. Days later, the fisherman would learn how birds die.
That day (the government) let children and the elderly come to the sea and unknowingly breathe the fumes. They let the fishermen fish and consume fish that was possibly contaminated. “They didn’t care,” said Huaroto a year and nine months after the spill. “Then we saw the birds. Then we learned how they died, we learned the hard way. And the treatment that was given to the animals… It was bad. They burned dead animals, accumulated them in pink bags,” he added.
“It was a black wave,” says Walter Cruz, a veteran seaman from Ventanilla.
The fishers are inside the small office of the Association of Fishers, Founders, Shipowners and Craft Stibators (ASPEFAEA) in Pachacútec. The town is a place far from Lima, where the demands of these fishermen do not seem to be heard. The human settlement is very close to the sea and its inhabitants are reluctant to abandon fishing and the ocean.
The fishers at the meeting agree on one point: the days after the spill have been of anguish and sadness. They feel like something has been taken away from them, that since the spill they’re not the same. Before, their job was the “pinta” (fishing with hook) and diving, but now they can’t go back to the sea anymore.
“They have ruined our work. I don’t know what to work on now. I’m in nothing,” says fisherman Damian Calderon. His eyes are tired, and his face is marked by repeated sad gestures. “Even now I’m still with that [depression], feeling bad because sometimes you need to make money. For example, this year my daughter finishes school and I don’t know what to do. That’s what I’m thinking. I got sick, the depression, the stress. I’ve been in bad shape,” he recalls.
Calderón says that he has gone to a psychologist on his own to overcome his crises. Since then, the words mental health, sadness, depression, anguish will be repeated incessantly in the testimonies. An elderly woman who has listened attentively to the stories asks for the floor. She carries with her a plastic gallon cut on the top with straps on the sides. A makeshift backpack to carry her fishing gear.
“My name is Luisa Janampa,” said the fisherwoman. “I’m a shore ‘pintera.’ and since the spill nothing can be done. One day my stomach started to hurt, it got loose and my eyes started to burn. From there, from one moment to the next, my leg started to hurt. I went to SIS [the Peruvian health insurance system,] and the doctor sends me to see the dermatologist. He asks, ‘where have you been walking?’ Turns out I had a stain. He put an ampule and creams on me, and ordered tests of everything. He told me not to go to the sea anymore, not to sit on the rocks. And then I didn’t go anymore, then. I still got that stain, like a big mole.”
Janampa says that although the settlement money helps, the problem is that Repsol harmed the sea. She calls it “the sea of Grau,” and especially the health of the inhabitants.
For the fishers of Pachacútec economic compensation is not enough. They want to see the sea clean again, as it was before, although they are aware that this scenario is increasingly a dream.
“This sea was rich in all kinds of species. This whole area was rich in marine species, crabs, molluscs, choros. I love the sea, that’s why I feel powerless. What do we do? Who’s helping us?” says Cruz. “It’s a shame: they (Repsol) could do something with all the money they have,” he adds. His words encourage the fishers in the room to remember what the bay was like before the spill. They show photographs carrying huge fish and start laughing: it is a fleeting moment of joy.
Cruz then continues:
“We were fishermen and look at us now. We didn’t beg anyone for anything.”
“Although we’ve wanted to go fishing elsewhere, that costs us more because of transportation. We have tried to go to Mala or León Dormido (almost two hours south of Lima), but there they don’t allow us to fish. When we go, they give us bad looks,” explains Samuel Córdova Huanaco. “I have two children and now I’ve gotten into construction. I’m doing what I can to survive, but sometimes I go to see the sea, to see if it’s already cleaned up,” he says.
Córdova adds that he has also experienced stress and depression, but hasn’t received professional help. One of the hardest things, he says, has been to change the way he makes his living. Sometimes he gathers scrap, but he knows that’s not what he’s meant to do.
At one point the group heads to a nearby beach called Los Delfines. It’s a foggy day and the waves are high, there’s a cold wind running, only a few rocks protrude on the shore. Farther into the sea you can see some boats. The fishers silently look at the great blue expanse. Huaroto talks with his companions about a big rock where he used to go diving, pointing at it and adding that it has the shape of a great bow. A tone of nostalgia is present in the diver’s account.
“For us fishing is not just a job, it’s a way of life. Repsol has taken away our work, our way of life. We can no longer choose to be fishermen because we can’t be that anymore. Because of a Repsol problem now my whole life has to change. The consequences on our health? We don’t know. Perhaps they will appear in a few years,” says Huaroto as he looks at the cliff that extends its shape towards the sea. “I used to dive there,” he says, and then he turns back.
The report of the Joint Environmental Emergency Unit of the United Nations, published in February 2022, noted that in the days after the spill, health units treated 123 people with poisoning symptoms “due to the deterioration of environmental conditions.” Separately, one of the recommendations that the Final Report of the Andean, Amazon, Afro-Peruvian, Environment and Ecology Commission of Congress made to the Ministry of Health (Minsa) is to implement constant monitoring for the coming years, of the health of the population affected by the oil spill. But according to Luis Nuñez, president of Aspefaea, none of his associates have received medical care, neither physical nor mental, by Minsa staff. He also mentioned that no official documents have arrived in his association that support medical interventions in the population of Pachacútec. And there has been no education efforts about the risks of prolonged exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and what their effects are. This situation repeats in other guilds.
“[Minsa] should at least have said: Mr.President [of Aspefaea], send me your people’s data, let’s examine it. But I didn’t get any communication,” said Nuñez.
Meanwhile, Lissette Vásquez, deputy in the Environment, Public Services and Indigenous Peoples of the Office of the Defensoria del Pueblo, the government office responsible for defending the fundamental rights and civil liberties of citizens, explained to Convoca.pe that her institution requested Minsa, since the first months of the incident, to provide immediate care to those affected by the oil spill. The ministry’s responde through the National Institute for Mental Health Honorio Delgado, which indicated that they have been developing a research protocol to study the impact of the spill on mental health on the population since last year.
In May 2023, the Institute informed that the protocol was “in the process of technical-methodological and ethical approval,” and that “once cleared, it should receive funding.” If the study is carried out, it should be finished by July 31 2024. There was no further communication after that notice. In August, the Defensoria del Pueblo asked again for answers and requested Ricardo Peña, Deputy Minister of Public Health, to report on the immediate actions that the ministry will take to address the issue of mental health. In September, Convoca.pe requested information from the Institute and their response was that the project was still in the process of methodological approval and that budgeting and final approval had not been completed yet.
On September 5th the fishers sent a memorandum to Alberto Otarola, president of the Council of Ministers asking the Ministry of Health to activate the protocols for physical and mental health. The Ministry replied on September 22, but their response didn’t acknowledge any of the issues raised by the fishers.
For Vásquez it is important to monitor mental health because approximately 10,000 people and their families have been affected, having to change their lifestyle and jobs to survive. She also highlighted that visitors have also been deprived of leisure sites, as several recreational beaches have been impacted and that should be taken into account. According to the official, environmental remediation is a key issue for the Office of the Defensoria del Pueblo and there should be clear and adequate information on this point.
Attorney Mario Carranza, who represents various associations in the five affected districts, says that his defendants have not received any medical care either, despite having formally requested it. “There hasn’t been a health follow-up by Minsa for the villagers. The answer was not adequate and no strategy was deployed,” said Carranza.
Luis Díaz Barroso, president of the Aucallama Association of Artisanal Fishers, confirmed the lawyer’s version: “As of today, the Minsa has done little or nothing, and the truth is that psychologically this [the spill] has affected a lot. People don’t know if the sea is going to recover or not, and that worries them. Through the Presidency of the Council of Ministers (PCM), we’re making a call for health care,” he said.
Diaz says he has never received an official report from Minsa showing that mental and toxicological health tests have been conducted. The fisherman believes that due to the impact on mental health Repsol should have considered a comprehensive reparation for loss of profits, moral damage and emerging damage, “but the company has only accepted the loss of profits because they consider that there is no moral impact,” he adds.
Convoca.pe repeatedly requested Minsa for documents that show a monitoring of public health in the affected population and requested an interview with an official spokesman, but at the moment this story was published, none of these requests received a response.
In contrast, when Convoca requested information from the National Center for Occupational Health and Environmental Protection (Censopas) about the analyses carried out on the workers in charge of the collection and cleaning of crude oil, the institution responded with the Technical Report No.004-2022, which details that the workers fulfilled their work under unsafe and highly risky conditions. For example, it was identified that the personal protective equipment (PPP) used was insufficient, its replacement rate was not optimal, and the workers did not have respiratory protection equipment. The workers even consumed their food with the suit on, which was usually contaminated.
The report also found deficiencies in the logistics: crude oil was collected using shovels and buckets and to reach the top of the cliffs (on Cavero beach) a wooden ladder held by a rope was used. The report reaffirms the artisanal way in which the cleaning of the affected beaches was carried out.
Hydrocarbons and fish
The three main questions posed by fishers are when will they be able to fish again, when are the beaches going to be remedied – in July 2023 the Environmental Assessment and Control Agency (Oefa) reported that they still have 19 sites with hydrocarbon traces – and what is the state of the marine species. Although there are no definitive studies that provide accurate answers to these questions, there are reports that provide important clues. For example, according to the report prepared by the UN Joint Environmental Emergency Unit, the remediation of the Peruvian sea could take between six to ten years, adding that there could be a long-term negative impact on shells and shellfish. One of the most important recommendations of the report is the environmental monitoring that will “help determine the time when it is safe to open the beaches and consume marine products.”
So, what is the state of marine species? Convoca.pe, through a request for public information to the National Agency for Fishing Health (Sanipes) and a questionnaire to Muriel María Gomez, director of the Direction of Health and Safety, was able to access the studies done to species to determine the presence of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), substances of difficult degradation that can cause serious damage to the environment and human beings. According to the documents, three analyses of species were carried out in one year (between February 2022 and February 2023). Health interventions, according to Sanipes, are linked to budgetary, logistical and hydrobiological resources availability.
A total of seven species were analyzed in those studies. Although the results say they do not record the presence of hydrocarbons (HAPs), only the black snail, lapa, yuyo, pintadilla, choral, algae and anchovy were evaluated. These samples belong to fishing areas and there are no chemical analysis reports of hydrobiological products that arrived at artisanal fishing landings (DPA) in areas affected by the spill.
The only thing that has been done at the landing stages is the organoleptic analysis (assessments made with human senses) to the species. That means that Sanipes’ agents only see them, touch them and smell them. There are records of these analyses until August 2023, and the institution maintains that “they are the best approach to determining the safety and acceptability of hydrobiological products from areas contaminated with oil, followed by a chemical analysis, according to international protocols for hydrocarbon spills in marine environments. However, biologist Juan Carlos Riveros, scientific director of Oceana, indicated that this may not be entirely true.
For Riveros, the analyses carried out by the State to detect PAHs in marine species have not followed the necessary scientific rigor. The tests should have been conducted on all the species, or at least the vast majority, living in the impact zone. He underlines that the sensory assessment is insufficient because it is not a methodology that guarantees the suitability of fish for human consumption from a bacteriological and toxicological point of view. For the scientist it was necessary to differentiate the species into two groups. First, those that act as bioindicators, which are usually the “filters” (conches, snails, etc.), where the possible particles are trapped in their muscles. And then, the species of a commercial nature, like fish. In their case it was essential to take samples of his organs, such as kidneys and muscles, added Riveros.
“In my reading of the Sanipes reports, I do not think there was a protocol indicating, for example, the sample size. This appears to be more an assessment sampling than systematic sampling. Therefore, they are not well done, they are analyses carried out with goodwill but with limited resources. It is important not only to measure something but know where to measure it and in what element of the food chain is being measured. In this case the absence of evidence [in species of a part of the chain] does not imply that there are no PAHs in the middle, says the biologist.
Sanipes told Convoca.pe that it is currently conducting monitoring in the districts of Ancón, Chancay, Huacho and the province of Callao. Twenty-one months after the ecological catastrophe, the agency stresses that “it will expand the universe of samples including hydrobiological resources in each fishing area, considering marine invertebrates, algae and pelagic fish and/or coastal demersal, or according to availability in the previously detailed areas.” The number of species, the organs to be studied and the dates of the monitoring were not indicated.
With regard to the quality of the marine environment, the Institute of the Sea of Peru (Imarpe) in its most recent technical report – out of seven – carried out between February and March 2023, concludes that the maximum concentrations of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH) are recorded in coastal areas and the beach line. The districts where the largest presence of TPH was recorded were Chancay, Ventanilla and Ancón. At many of the measuring stations, TPH values were above the permitted limits and when compared to the previous report (October 2022) it is evident that concentrations were presumably higher due to the anomalous wave recorded at those dates, as oil is trapped in the seabed and loosens with tidal changes.
Separately, the Attorney General of the Ministry of the Environment, Julio Guzmán, declared that it is not yet possible to estimate how long the damage of this pollution will last on the coast.
“We could not say with certainty when it is going to be decontaminated, but that pollution is degrading, it is degrading, it is being reduced,” he said. He was also optimistic about the progress of his office’s investigation to take measures against Repsol and noted that it is already in the final stages. “We lack at most 10% of the means of proof that we must produce throughout the investigation process. We are very happy with those generated to this day. The state has a solid case, it ended.
Meanwhile, Repsol, through paid advertorials in national newspapers, has tried to communicate that the beaches are clean and that everything is going well. The last was published on Sunday, September 10. Convoca consulted Oefa’s image area on the information propagated by the Spanish oil company, and the agency reaffirmed its statement issued on August 10 in which they claim that the company “has informed incorrectly, incompletely and biasedly.”
In other words, Oefa had previously clarified the information published by Repsol, but the company didn’t take notice and continues to disseminate data that does not conform to reality.
One of the commitments to which Repsol agreed to was to compensate those affected by the massive oil spill. The economic valuations were 65,000 soles (approximately $16.800) for “non-boarded” fishermen and 70,000 soles ($18,000) for those in boats, per year. Temporary and annual merchants and fishermen would be eligible. Payment negotiations for 2022 began with advances of 3,000 soles, and in November of the same year the total amounts mentioned above were determined. The company claims that 97% of those affected have already received the deposits, but there are still fishermen who refuse to sign the compensation contract because they consider the conditions very harmful to their interests. And the 2023 reparations payments are fueling the confrontation.
For fishers, the amounts established are not proportional to the environmental and social damage caused by the spill. They also allege that various irregularities occurred with the registration of beneficiaries. Nuñez, the president of Aspefaea, denounces that many have not been included or have been categorized in economic activities that they have never participated in. Repsol responded to this last point through its press office, claiming that the National Institute for Civil Defense (INDECI) was in charge of the registration and that each person voluntarily declared the activity they take part in. But, according to Nuñez, the fishing associations were not asked for a list of their associates. That is why he doubts the legitimacy of registration.
Carranza, the attorney for the fishing associations concurs: “The participation of the State has been null. The state should have made an economic assessment as recommended by the UN. They showed up after more than 90% of the fishermen had already signed,” he says, adding that the negotiation between the fishermen and Repsol was very unequal.
The legal representative of the fishers warns that there are deficiencies in the payment of the economic reparations and that Repsol has tried to stop them. “Currently there is a controversial situation because the company, as far as this year is concerned, began paying the reparations to temporary workers [those who work only in the Summer season] first. That group has been paid 100 percent of the amount they were paid last year. Then they started with the group of annual merchants, and this group has been told: ‘Look, the only payment we’ll make is the third part of what we paid you last year. Take it or leave it.’ It’s an imposition: ‘You take it or, if not, we’re going to trial’,” said Carranza.
Why can Repsol stop the payments? Carranza indicates that one of the terms of the contract for Repsol to continue paying compensation is for the Ministry of Production to issue a ruling prohibiting fishing. This hasn’t happened yet, which has given Repsol an excuse to stop payments. The attorney believes that it is impossible and unfeasible to comply with this condition. “What Clause 7 says [on conditioning payment on the issuance of a rule to ban fishing] was discussed at the dialogue table [and it was concluded] that it was impossible. We have a statement from the Ministry of Production and the Ministry of the Environment indicating it. That means that to access compensation this year, they put in the agreement a condition that is impossible to fulfill,” added Carranza.
This has led to the mobilization of fishers, as the company maintains its position and has reported that until they agree on the terms of payment with the group of annual workers they won’t get started with the rest.
The fishermen demanded to meet with representatives of the company on September 4. Convoca.pe he accessed a video of this meeting, in which you can hear José Edgardo Allemant Sayán – member of Repsol’s Social Management team and former director of the Directorate of Craft Fisheries of the Ministry of Production tell the fishers “what you signed has a ‘judged thing’ character is a contract that can’t be changed, even by a judge. Clause No. 7 says that there has to be an express rule [of the state to suspend fishing] to have new compensation. Although that clause, which you have signed, has not been fulfilled, Repsol has decided to open the compensation for the year 2023. That’s why I’m telling you to think about it”, he says.
Suddenly a fisherwoman interrupts him to say ‘no,’ but Allemant replies: “No doesn’t matter, Maritza. You can follow your legal process, so can we. Until an addendum isn’t signed, your contract is over. However, we’re making an exception. You can strike once, twice, a thousand five hundred strikes, it doesn’t change the process. And you saw what happened with those people who went to negotiate with the Defensoria del Pueblo,” Allemant says in the recording.
Since they didn’t reach an agreement, the fishers decided to march towards the Presidency of the Council of Ministers.
At the first march to the PCM, the fishers presented a document with the following demands: the installation of a dialogue to reach agreements on a “just comprehensive repair” for the year 2023; the inclusion of families in the Register of Affected and that Repsol isn’t in charge of collecting that information. They also requested the creation and implementation of protocols for the monitoring and evaluation of the physical and mental health of those affected, in coordination with Minsa. In addition, they demanded their participation in the Environmental Rehabilitation Plan that will be presented by Refinería La Pampilla.
Convoca.pe consulted Repsol’s press representative about the issue of compensation, and the company replied that they were holding meetings with the merchants. With regard to the point of their potential suspension of payments, there was no clear answer. Regarding the statements of his representative at the meeting on 4 September, they indicated that the meetings were extensive and could not “be taken out of context.”
Finally, the fishers and representatives of the merchants met on September 13 at the headquarters of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers with Werner Caiguaray Pérez, Deputy Minister of Territorial Governance of the PCM, Ricardo Peña Sánchez, Deputy Minister of Public Health of Minsa, Congressman Ruth Luque, of the Commission of Andean Peoples and Ecology, and other officials of the Ministries of Energy and Mines, Production and Health. It concluded, according to the minutes, with the commitment of the installation of a dialogue table (which will include Repsol) in the first week of October. The government agreed to communicate periodically “the current situation of environmental impact and its evolution.”
Congresswoman Luque, who accompanied the fishers in the assembly, maintains that the state has failed to hold Repsol accountable and has shown a passive attitude. “Nothing has been done about this issue. And the population is absolutely right to point out that they are in an absolutely disadvantageous relationship compared to a company that does whatever it wants and even sets the conditions,” she said.
Luque stresses that the state should not be a mediator but a guarantor of the rights of its citizens. “The deputy minister said the state was ‘mediating’. I interrupted that because the state doesn’t mediate. It guarantees rights,” she added.
The Congresswoman hopes for concrete breakthroughs at the dialogue table. “One, to guarantee a fair dialogue for the population. It can’t be that we have such a vertical dialogue in terms of power. Second, there must be a State that requires the company to produce frequent reports of remediation of the flora, fauna and [affected] areas. Luque also believes that it is necessary to demand transparency from the company and recommends removing some clauses [of the compensation contract] that can coerce the population.
The fishers say that the talks with the PCM haven’t yielded positive results. Due to that, the artisanal fishers organizations asked on October 16 the presence of the Defensoria del Pueblo in the negotiations. The agency notified Repsol of their participation, and the company agreed, but indicated that at the moment “we’re undertaking compensation processes with other collectives, due to that it will be communicated at the time when the meetings with other organizations are scheduled so you can participate.” For Carranza, this is a strategy to divide the fishers and have individual negotiations.
The tensions increased after the Ministry of Production published a report about their testing of the areas affected by the spill. The report indicates a high concentration of Total Hydrocarbons in the sea and the coastal areas of Ventanilla, Ancón y Chancay. The documento concludes that there are no conditions for the normal development of artisanal fishing.
Based on this report, the fishers sent the company a notarized letter on October 19th to demand the start of negotiations within 48 hours. They didn’t receive a response. Now they plan to mobilize and protest on the streets to demand fair compensation and a swift rehabilitation of the sea.
Today, as it has happened for the last 21 months, they demand that the State and Repsol provide a fair solution to this problem, which only worsens for them over time and prevents them from being one with the sea again.