Peruvian oil spill catches researchers, citizens off guard

Via Flickr.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | March 9, 2022

Two months after Peru’s worst ever environmental coastline disaster, scientists are calling for Peru to end its reliance on oil.

Scientists and authorities are assessing the damage’s extents, according to the scientific journal Nature. Reports have found the oil spread to more than 25 beaches, reaching more than 41 kilometers of coastline. Deyvis Huamán, a conservation biologist with Peru’s National Service of Natural Areas Protected by the State (SERNANP) in Lima, said the destruction was astonishing and a tragedy. Such spread of oil is unprecedented in the country and in recent history.

No one in Peru was prepared for the oil spill, Peruvian environmental lawyer Carmen Heck said. Peru is a large fishing country and has one of the most productive seas on the planet, so the oil will drastically impact the environment and the livelihoods of residents. Many fish and other aquatic animals are expected to perish as a result of the oil spreading. It is unclear to authorities, researchers, and locals as to how the oil moved so far so quickly.

Most recent reports found beaches have been tarred, pollution has reached three protected marine reserves, and more than 1,000 seabirds were coated with oil. The issue has raised the question of who pays for environmental crimes during the climate crisis and what can be done to prevent similar ones. Environmentalists are calling for a decreased reliance on oil within the South American country, but no laws have been put in place to achieve that yet. Under Peru’s strict liability law, the Spanish energy company Repsol that manages the oil refinery where the spill came from is ultimately responsible for the spill. It is unclear how payment will occur, when the oil spill will be cleaned up, and if the wildlife will ever return to normal.

Alarming Levels of Mercury are Found in Old Growth Amazon Forest

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Simone Garza | January 28, 2022

Currently, there are extreme levels of mercury that have been found in Madre de Rio regions of Peru. The canopy located in this region is known to uphold abundant biodiversity. The process of mercury being released into the air, is by burning coal that contains a threatening neurotoxin for both humans and animals. The mercury has been released in the air from miners looking for gold near riverbanks.

Once it is released into the air, the particles can lay on leaves such as dust and washed into the forest floor by rain. The absorbed mercury in the leaves is then transferred up to the song bird’s food cycle, revealing levels that are two to 12 times higher in proportionate sectors that are distant from mining activity. Mercury consumption for birds can impact their ability to sing, navigate, and even lay fewer eggs. This research has been published in the journal called Nature Communications. 

Remaining mercury particles can be absorbed in the leaves tissue. Mercury can also be threatening for aquatic systems. Mercury can transform into methylmercury, a very hazardous form of poison. This results from bigger fish eating on smaller ones, as the mercury builds up to the food web.

This is the cause of doctors strongly recommending pregnant women to prevent consuming predaceous fish like shark, known as swordfish and king mackerel. In the Madre de Rios Region, illegal acts of gold mining have increased. Illegal miners tend to swath areas of the jungle, straining massive amounts of topsoil to find any size of gold. Without adequate help, it could take 500 years to repair. In 2016, the government had declared a health emergency following the report of 40 percent of people in 97 villages that had alarming levels of mercury in their systems.

This specific type of gold mining done in Peru is called small-scale gold mining. This happens in approximately 70 other countries, also resulting in close to 20 percent of global gold production. 

Scientists find evidence of human air pollution dating back to 1500s

The Adnes is the longest continental mountain range in the world stretching from Venezuela to Argentina. (Michael McDonough/Flickr)
The Adnes is the longest continental mountain range in the world stretching from Venezuela to Argentina. (Michael McDonough/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | February 10, 2015

Researchers have recently discovered evidence of air pollution believed to be from 16th century silver production in Bolivia.

The research team was led by Ohio State University professor Paolo Gabrielli with OSU’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. The researchers discovered an imprint of smog high in metal content in an Andean ice cap in Peru but the source of the pollution is likely hundreds of miles east in present-day Bolivia.

The air pollution was believed to come from to come from silver refineries in the mountain town of Potosí. Prior to Spanish colonization, the Inca people mined silver in the area and at one point Potosí was the silver mining capital of the world. However with Spanish colonization came more efficient methods for mining silver which in turn led to greater amounts of air pollution. Much of the pollution from the silver mines consisted of lead, arsenic, and other materials and was believed to have occurred during between the 16th and 18th centuries.

The article was published in Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences. The authors conclude: “This anthropogenic pollution of the South American atmosphere precedes the commencement of the Industrial Revolution by ∼240 y(ears).” Some scientists say that human-caused air pollution – “though agriculture, mining, fossil fuel production and other industrial activities” – has put us in a period known as Anthropocene. However scientists debate about when exactly this period began and Gabrielli’s recent findings would suggest that the period started earlier than previously thought.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Paleoclimate.