Things That Matter

MYSTERY: Brazilian Beaches Overwhelmed With 600 Tons of Crude Oil

For nearly two months now, thick black sludge has been washing up on the shores of northern Brazil, and nobody is any closer to determining, and stopping, the leak at its source.  Brazil had deployed 1,500 troops to aid in the cleanup process, but without much effect. The oil is just below the surface, which renders typical tracking and cleanup measures useless. In response, troops and volunteers’ only option is to clean up the oil as it washes ashore. Still, experts predict that 600 tons of crude oil have washed ashore since September, killing wildlife and threatening already precarious coral reef systems.

Vice President Hamilton Mourão announced Monday that an additional 5,000 troops would be deployed to aid in the cleanup process.

Over 200 beaches have been affected, making it the worst oil spill in the country’s history.

Senator Humberto Costa, who represents one of the affected regions, has accused President Jair Bolsonaro of neglect in public statements, tweets, and even memes. In a tweet, he said, “The price of neglect is very high. And the Northeast is paying this bill.” He’s even gone so far as to say, “This government is an enemy of the environment.” 

Many other environmental groups agree that the federal response was irresponsibly slow. The government effectively sent one troop per mile of the affected coastline. Nearly two months later, it has sent an additional 5,000 troops.

Even soccer players are using their field time to demonstrate against slow federal response.

During a soccer match this week, both competing teams altered their uniforms in protest of the oil spills. Bahia opted to wear their typically bright blue and red striped jerseys with black oil spill streaks along the side. Ceara wore black gloves, to represent the black caked gloves thousands of Brazilians have worn in lieu of paid federal employees. Some had even used their bare hands, a major health risk.

Images from the scene are heartwrenching.

Countless numbers of wildlife have perished in the last seven weeks of ongoing oil pollution. Sea turtles are washing ashore with thick black oil coating their bodies. Brazilian volunteers rush to remove the oil from their airways, and under their fins while the turtles helplessly wait for the ordeal to be over. The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources reported at least 24 sea turtles having washed up covered in oil. The spill couldn’t come at a worse time for sea turtles. 

Scientists are expecting roughly 800,000 baby turtles to hatch and make their way into the vast ocean. Some have already started hatching, and researchers from Projeto Tamar are trying to catch thousands of baby turtles as we report this. So far, they have released 1,000 olive ridley baby sea turtles 15 miles off the coast into clean ocean water. Scientists don’t know if they’ll be able to return to the beach to lay their eggs without having “imprinted” their walk into the ocean. 

Volunteers have found dead seabirds, fish, turtles and even dolphins … all covered in oil.

Otherwise pristine Brazilian beaches are now scarred with thick black streaks that display their dead. A nearby coral reef, which had just recovered from a near ecosystem-shattering bleaching event, is now covered in black oil. While the efforts to clean up beaches are a band-aid for the root cause, Brazilian officials have no other option. They don’t know where the oil is coming from.

Oil forensics are pointing toward a Venezuelan source.

Regardless of political governmental boundaries, oil comes from the earth, and carry distint chemical fingerprints that allow scientists to determine the geologic origin. That said, the oil washing up on Brazilian shores has already been exposed to water and UV rays, which can alter the chemical makeup, making it more difficult to identify. 

Still, independent labs have corroborated Brazil’s claim that the oil is likely from Venezuela. That, however, doesn’t mean the criminal activity is stemming from Venezuela. “This oil is Venezuelan. Its DNA is Venezuelan. This is certain. It’s a certainty, not speculation,” Ibama President Eduardo Bim announced at a Senate hearing. “Does that mean that Venezuela is responsible? No, that is a separate question.”

In the aftermath of slow response to quell Amazon rainforest fires, many are suspicious of Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro had publicly declared his ambivalence toward protecting the Amazon rainforest for both indigenous people and environmental purposes. Since his presidency, Bolsonaro has rolled back environmental protections in favor of Big Ag development instead. One Twitter user exclaimed, “This is crazy, first the Amazon rainforest burning down to ashes now this … Something is not right here!”

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