As one of the largest Brazilian environmental impacts has increased to over 2,200 kilometers of coastline since the beginning of September, and which has already affected nine northeastern states, a scenario of complete apprehension concerns Brazilians. Over 900 tons of crude oil have been collected to date, according to Eduardo Fortunato Bin, the president of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Resources (IBAMA), in a declaration made on Tuesday, October 22, in a public hearing, which was convened by the Commission of Mines and Energy, of the Chamber of Deputies, in Brasilia. When will the spill be controlled? One more unanswered question, which demonstrates the vulnerability that we have in our reaction to accidents like this in Brazil. Another unanswered question is with respect to the cause and those responsible for the largest spill of crude oil that has affected Brazil.

An Open Letter about the Oil Incident in Northeast Brazil was disclosed this week, in which the and dozens of other non-governmental organizations, research institutions, and ordinary citizens highlighted the importance of the affected areas and called out for more effective actions to combat the spill and the transparency of information to society and the Federal Government. By the end of Wednesday afternoon, it had been signed by 109 organizations and 169 individuals.

Biodiversity in danger

There are over 200 affected areas, in 76 municipalities so far. In this situation of misinformation, there is the compromising of the beaches, mangrove swamps, fish, crustaceans, corals, and sea horses, and other species, such as turtles and dolphins. According to Ibama official data, 39 animals “are knowingly affected,” and 5 birds and 18 turtles have died, as well as a dead fish and a reptile so far. 2,190 young sea turtles were captured preventively in Bahia and 624 in Sergipe. The numbers are much higher because news is provided on a daily basis by organizations or communities that live or work in the coastal region.

The incidents are only increasing. Experts have warned about contamination that affects food safety. Providing a correct destination for the collected residues is also something that needs further clarification. Academia is already trying to find solutions by testing, such as those presented by the chemical department of ​​the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) – transforming the oil into charcoal, which can then be used for industrial purposes.

Tourism, traditional and indigenous populations, and especially the traditional fishermen from the northeastern states have already been severely affected. Hundreds of thousands of families depend on the sea for survival.

Traditional fishermen

The Ministry of Agriculture announced that it will bring forward the payment for the period when fishing is prohibited (the fish breeding season) for 60,000 fishermen from the marine area of the affected northeast, in November. The extra benefit is to be paid by the National Institute for Social Security (INSS). The period generally lasts up to five months. “We have brought it forward so that the fishermen stop fishing for fish that are not fit for consumption and also so that they are not deprived of income for their survival,” said the Minister Tereza Cristina. The monthly amount is R$ 998.00 (the minimum salary).

“It is important to reinforce that this is a palliative measure. The benefit is granted to traditional fishermen during the period in which the species breed (fish, crab, shrimp, octopus, lobster, and crabs), according to the period and region where they reproduce. It has the purpose of protecting the species in a state of reproduction/creation and should not be anticipated, but extended, in order to cover the entire period of prohibition of fishing and selling of the catch, as an ordinance of Ibama,” analyzes Luiz Afonso do Rosário, the coordinator of the Climate Defenders Campaign of, in Latin America.

According to him, 150,000 fishermen are being affected by the spill of crude oil on the northeastern coast. Luís Alfonso explains that this oil is a toxic substance that in contact with water, salt, and sun produces a chemical reaction, releasing even more toxic substances. Among them, are benzenes and phenols, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). When mixed with water, they become invisible and highly contaminating and bioaccumulative in all marine biota.

“They can reach the top of the food chain, which are the commercial species, which in turn affect humans through food. Therefore, the monitoring of the populations who live on the beaches and estuaries should be constant, for at least for another 15 years. It is an environmental disaster and a calamity in terms of food and public safety,” he warns.

National Contingency Plan

The Federal Government is being heavily criticized for having closed down, this year, many committees, by Decree No 9759, of April, including those that were responsible for operating the National Contingency Plan for Incidents of Pollution by Oil in Water (PNC) , which should be adopted in large-scale incidents, where the individualized action of the agents is shown not to be sufficient to resolve the problem.

The Federal Prosecution Office (MPF) filed an action against the Federal Government, on October 18, alleging omission in the case of the oil spills. The requirement was that in 24 hours, the PNC be activated. With the lack of compliance, the established daily fine was R$ 1 million. However, the 1st Court of Federal Justice of Sergipe, on October 21, considered that the Federal Government had implemented the PNC established for cases such as the appearance of oil spills on the northeastern beaches.

The Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, in interviews this week, denies that there had been any slowness of action by the Federal Government in relation to the spill. However, according to a report by André Borges, from the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, the formalization of the PNC by the minister, in an official letter to the Office of the President’s Chief of Staff, only occurred on October 11, 41 days after the discovery of the beginning of the spill. The document established the Brazilian Navy as an operational coordinator.

What is found, in practice, is that the response actions to the spill are currently insufficient to contain the increasing damage. In these almost two months, Ibama, the Navy, the Air Force, and Petrobras have been working on the collection of the oil and in the operations. “The spill (of oil) moves erratically, back and forth, and it is not possible to know whether the process is at the end or not,” said Bin today.

Mobilizations throughout Brazil

The situation has become so serious that even the general public is rolling up its sleeves in order to try to reduce the damage on the beaches, mangrove swamps, and the affected flora and fauna. However, beware: care must be taken when handling the oil, since exposure to it can affect your health. The degradation is slow, according to oceanographers from the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). The oil has highly toxic and carcinogenic components, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and PAHs.

By word of mouth or by social networks, the mobilizations have grown exponentially in the country. These are ordinary citizens or those belonging to non-governmental movements and organizations, researchers, and civil servants. On Tuesday, the National Association of Employees with Specialist Careers in the Environment and PECMA – Ascema National released a public statement with serious criticisms of the federal government mainly with respect to the non-operationalization of the PNC. The organization consists of employees belonging to the Ministry for the Environment (MMA), Ibama, ICMBio, and also the Brazilian Forestry Service (SFB). See the full content in this link.

“This is not an ordinary oil spill. So far, the Brazilian population has no real diagnosis of the situation. We do not know all the affected marine species and the situation in the affected northeast mangroves, which are extremely important for biodiversity. Another concern is where this oil is going that the volunteers are removing with their own hands, without safety and without resources. There is specific funding for these actions by the government. We have to charge for these actions and information,” says Claudia Ferreira, one of the main facilitators of the SOS Abrolhos Movement, in Bahia.

Even local soccer clubs have joined in. Ceará, CRB, CSA, Fortaleza, Sport, and Vitória have launched campaigns warning about the oil spill.

More questions than answers

Admiral Alexandre Rabelo, of the Brazilian Navy, spoke on Tuesday, at the public hearing, in the Chamber, that this situation is unprecedented in the assessment of the Navy. “In the extent, in the volume of oil, and in the duration of time. We are not aware in the West of something similar ever having happened.”

According to him, the Admiral Paulo Moreira Institute of Sea Studies detected, by analysis, that the oil is crude and is not produced in Brazil. “Petrobras came to the same conclusion,” he declared. “Another problem is that this oil does not disseminate on the surface. Since its discovery, it has been travelling in the subsurface. This hinders and prevents detection by satellite or aerial reconnaissance,” he explains. With this characteristic, containment barriers are unable to stop the oil.

“The hypotheses are of an accident in a transfer between ships, a shipwreck, an accidental spill, or an intentional spill. At the moment, we have teams working more in Sergipe and Pernambuco and it is not possible to know whether the spill will go further south down the coast,” he said. Researchers from the Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute of Postgraduate Studies and Research in Engineering (Coppe), at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), in a research commissioned by the Navy, analyzed that the spill could have occurred in a region between 600 km and 700 km from the coast, in the area of the states of Sergipe and Alagoas.

In the investigation process, the most likely is that the spill came from an irregular ship that was transporting a cargo that should not be sold, known as a “dark ship”, according to Admiral Ilques Barbosa Júnior. He said that, by international convention, every shipping incident should be disclosed by the responsible commander, which did not happen.

Because the spills are near the coast, there is a greater difficulty of operations with ships.

“Even so, some ships from the Navy and Petrobras have managed to collect the oil in the sea, near the coast, before it reaches the beaches,” says Admiral Paulo Moreira.

Only on October 21, the government announced reinforcements to clean up the beaches. According to the President-in-Office, Hamilton Mourão, five thousand army soldiers will be sent to support the work.

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