Oil spill in Curacao creates environmental disaster

WILLEMSTAD, Curacao, Wednesday August 29, 2012 — In a nightmare scene reminiscent of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, an extensive oil spill has fouled a stretch of shoreline and blackened pink flamingos and other wildlife in a nature preserve in Curacao.

Images of the island’s southern Jan Kok area showed a darkened coast and gobs of oil dripping off coastline rocks and mixing in the surf. Oil-daubed flamingos, crustaceans, and lizards could be seen struggling on the wind-swept reserve of salt flats.

Dick Drayer, a Curacao-based journalist who covers the Netherlands Antilles for Dutch television, estimated that the spill covered an area ‘‘of around 30 soccer fields.’’ He added that three distinct oil slicks are floating offshore and are ‘‘threatening the southern coast of Curacao.”

The leader of a local environmental group said on Monday that the spill of crude oil at Curacao’s Jan Kok preserve was from at least one storage tank owned by the Isla oil refinery, the largest business and employer on the island. The refinery is run by the state-owned oil company of Venezuela about 40 miles away.

‘‘This is probably the biggest (environmental) disaster in Curacao,’’ said Peter van Leeuwen of the Stichting SMOC group. ‘‘The whole area of Jan Kok is black. The birds are black. The crabs are black. The plants are black. Everything is draped in oil.”

According to Van Leeuwen, the spill started threatening wildlife sometime last week, but cleanup efforts by the company only recently got underway at the nature reserve, no more than 1,000 metres away from big tanks where Petroleos de Venezuela SA stores thousands of gallons of crude oil.

‘‘A lot of time has gone by without any action. It’s been about one week before somebody at the company has done anything at all,’’ he said, adding that workmen were excavating holes on Jan Kok’s beach to capture the spilled oil and mix it with sand and soil in order to cart it away.

The Isla refinery is a sprawling expanse of metal pipes, chemical converters and concrete by Willemstad’s bay. Activists have complained for years about the thick haze of smoke that sometimes blankets the area around the refinery, which can produce roughly 220,000 barrels a day.

Venezuela’s state-owned oil company continues to grapple with pressing problems back home. A huge explosion rocked the energy-rich country’s biggest oil refinery over the weekend, unleashing a deadly fire that killed at least 41 people and injured more than 150 others.

Up to Monday, Jacintha Constancia, Curacao’s minister of public health, environment and nature, had not explained what the government was doing about the spill or to prevent future accidents.

Nena Sanchez, a painter and former ‘‘Miss Curacao’’ who runs a plantation house and art studio on a hillside just above the Jan Kok salt flats, described the oil spill as ‘‘definitely extensive.’’

‘‘We’re very, very upset about the whole deal. We don’t know if the damage is so bad that the flamingos will go somewhere else because there is nothing left to eat here,’’ Sanchez told the Associated Press.

Curacao dive shop operator Ingrid Van Den Bosch said she has seen no evidence that the island’s world-class diving sites have been impacted by the spill. Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)