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Thursday, Jan. 20, 2000

Race is on to keep oil spill from Rio's swamps

By PETER MUELLO -- Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Seabirds coated in gummy oil washed up on Rio beaches today, as fishermen and petroleum workers raced to prevent a massive oil spill from spreading through ecologically vital mangrove swamps.

Aerial view of an oil spill near Rio de Janeiro. Brazil's state oil giant Petrobras said an underwater pipe ruptured January 18, spewing about 500 tons of oil which has begun washing up on beaches
(Photo by Samuel Martins / REUTERS)

Hundreds of workers raked up muck on beaches and sucked crude oil off the surface of postcard-famous Guanabara Bay, fouled by what environmentalists say is the worst ecologicial disaster to hit Rio de Janeiro state in a decade.

A leaking pipeline at the Reduc oil refinery belonging to federal petroleum giant Petrobras on Tuesday dumped at least 130,000 gallons of crude oil into the bay. State environmental officials say the real amount could be twice that much.

While there's little chance the oil will reach tourist beaches such as Copacabana and Ipanema, ecologists are more concerned that it will spread into the Guapimirim mangrove swamps, a environmentally protected area of 35,000 acres in the interior of the bay.

The swamps are vital to the ecosystem and are home to endangered species such as the yellow-throated alligator and the blue egret.

Biologist Mario Moscatelli of the state Environmental Affairs Department said wind and tides were carrying the oil into the swamps. He said the oil could poison the mangrove tree roots, endangering chiefly birds, fish and crustaceans.

Workers clean an oil contaminated beach off Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay
(AP Photo/Renzo Gostoli)

"If it hits the mangrove swamps, it will take at least three years for (the swamps) to return to the way they were," Carlos Alberto Martins de Souza, Petrobras' director of logistics and transport, said Wednesday. Company officials were not available today, a municipal holiday in Rio.

Petrobras was to announce on Friday the result of its investigation into the cause of the leak. But state environmental officials said Petrobras' pipelines are old and poorly maintained.

The nine-mile pipeline began operating in 1991. A leak was detected in 1997, and the company said the line was inspected just four months ago.

The State Foundation of Environmental Engineering, known as Feema, said the Reduc refinery has been operating without a required license since 1977. "Reduc is functioning illegally," Feema President Alex Grael said.

Petrobras faces fines totaling $52,000 for the spill. But the Rio de Janeiro state Secretary of the Environment, Andre Correia, admitted the amount was "ludicrous" and said harsher penalties were in line.

The Environmental Committee of the Rio de Janeiro state legislature on Wednesday filed charges against Petrobras for crimes against the environment. The Globo TV network reported today that the company could be fined $2,780 for each animal that dies because of the spilled oil.

The Fishermen's Colony, which represents about 600 fishermen in the greater Rio de Janeiro area, announced it also would file suit against Petrobras for damages. The oil has spoiled catches and damaged boats and nets.


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