Acting on a complaint filed by the Guatemalan Attorney General’s office, federal prosecutors here are investigating the recent rupture of an oil pipeline that runs in part through two protected areas.
Environmentalists hail the effort, hoping it will reveal information on the health of the 300-mile (480-km) pipeline. A 60-mile (100-km) portion of the line runs through Laguna del Tigre National Park, a core conservation area of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, while another stretch runs under the protected Dulce River.
The Christmas Day spill did not occur in either of the two protected areas, but instead on a privately owned ranch in Ruxruha, Alta Verapaz. And it was small, with estimates of its size ranging from 600 barrels to 1,600 barrels. But green groups have long worried that the pipeline as a whole might be in poor condition and therefore could pose a serious threat to sensitive areas it traverses.
Noé Ventura, who heads up the attorney general’s environment division, says that two months before the break, the Energy and Mines Ministry answered a request from his office for information on the condition of the pipeline. The ministry, he says, reported there was no risk of a rupture due to poor maintenance.
“The purpose of the complaint is to find out exactly what happened and what responsibility the company might have. In the face of inertia among environmental authorities to use their administrative powers, we decided to act,” Ventura says. “We also need to assess the state of the pipeline and how much life it has left.”
Although the spill was by all accounts relatively small, the environmental organization Madre Selva calls the case important, asserting that the pipeline operator, Basic Resources, has a history of impunity in Guatemala.
Basic was acquired last year by the French oil company Perenco from Texas-based Anadarco. Its pipeline runs from the Xan oilfield in the Maya Biosphere Reserve to Puerto Santo Tomás in the Caribbean, passing under the protected Dulce River, which connects vast Izabal Lake to the sea.
Basic became the subject of widespread criticism after the government in 1992 granted the company a concession to explore for hydrocarbons in Laguna del Tigre National Park despite laws forbidding contracts in such core conservation areas.
The company ended its exploration last year citing insufficient finds. Basic maintains the Xan concession, which was granted in the 1980s, before the park and the reserve were established.
Green groups call action overdue
Environmental organizations claim Basic’s oil operations have polluted water sources in the reserve and attracted homesteaders.
“This is the first time the state has started to fulfill its responsibilities in relation to Basic Resources. They never did anything in the past about the company’s contamination or illegal contract,” says Madre Selva’s Ricardo Solís.
Company officials say all of the oil from the December spill was cleaned up immediately. They say it was the fourth or fifth spill of 2001 but could not immediately be classified as sabotage—as was the case, they add, with the others, in which unknowns used saws or guns to rupture the line.
Antonio Minondo, Basic’s director of corporate relations here, maintains that through its clean-up and remediation work, Basic has ensured that the environmental impact of all of last year’s spills has been “zero.”
Sources in the attorney general’s office, who decline to be quoted by name, agree that the previous reported spills last year were, indeed, the result of sabotage. But they suspect the latest break might have been due to inadequate maintenance or operation of the line under excessive pressure. The 20-foot (six-meter) stretch of line that ruptured had been reinforced in 11 places, the officials say.
Basic officials, for their part, point out that the cause of the rupture is still being investigated, emphasizing that previous spills all were clearly the result of sabotage. “We are aware of the risks of sabotage and are taking measures to minimize that risk,” says Rodrigo Quevedo, Basic’s in-house counsel. “There’s nearly 1,640 feet (500 meters) of pipeline, and we can’t have a guard every 330 feet (100 meters).”
Quevedo asserts that Basic hews to high maintenance standards, complying with all requirements of the Energy and Mines Ministry. He says that the southern portion of the pipeline, where this and all previous breaks have occurred, dates from 1986 and has a life expectancy of 40 to 50 years. And reinforcing the pipeline is standard industry procedure, he argues, not a sign that the line is faulty.
- Catherine Elton