Ecuadorian Pipeline Ruptures, Spewing Crude Oil Into Amazon Rainforest

The full extent of the damage is still unknown.
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Image: CONAIE

A privately-owned oil pipeline that ruptured in Ecuador on Friday has sprayed a large but still unknown amount of crude petroleum into the Amazon rainforest, poisoning the environment and alarming local Indigenous communities, who have repeatedly had to deal with oil spills in one of the most important ecosystems in the world. 

The rupture was caused by a rockslide in Piedra Fina—a region that’s long experienced rainfall and steady erosion along the banks of the Coca River in the Napo and Sucumbias regions of Ecuador, according to OCP Ecuador, the company that owns the pipeline.

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“The incident caused by rocks falling on the tube of the heavy-crude oil pipeline occurred at 5:06 p.m. (2206 GMT) on January 28 of this year in the Piedra Fina sector, which could not have been foreseen by the oil transporter," Roberto Grijalva, OCP operations manager, told the news wire. 

The 486-kilometer pipeline is capable of carrying 450,000 barrels of oil per day—but this is not the first time that its precarious positioning in the forest has caused problems. OCP shut off the pipeline for a few weeks in December to manage the erosion around Piedra Fina, forcing the government to declare force majeure over oil exports. OCP only began re-pumping crude oil through the pipe at the end of month. 

Oil spills associated with Chevron exploitation in the Amazon rainforest have caused an incredible amount of pollution in the Lago Agrio region of the Ecuadorian Amazon and have led to more than a decade of legal proceedings. Meanwhile, the Ecuadorian government and Chinese petroleum companies have tried to push oil drilling in Yasuni, considered to be the world’s most pristine and biodiverse region of the Amazon rainforest.

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After beginning cleanup and remediation, OCP announced on Saturday that it had once again halted the flow of oil through the pipe until the conditions “are right” to do so safely. Even so, the spill has alarmed environmentalists and Indigenous advocacy groups like the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), which originally caught and shared footage of the spill on Twitter.

“We see that it’s a high-magnitude spill. It’s believed that water sources and third parties were affected,” Ecuadorian environmentalist and lawyer Juan Pablo Fajardo told Democracy Now! on Monday.

Oil spills cause lasting, sometimes permanent ecological damage to the areas where they happen. They threaten wildlife in a number of ways: Oil diminishes the insulating ability of fur and the water repellency of feathers, causing mammals and birds that get slicked in it to die from hypothermia; it can kill or injure animals that inhale or ingest it, mistaking it for food; and can damage the reproductive capabilities of fish, slowly chipping away at their populations over time. 

This is damaging for the environment, but it’s also damaging to Indigenous communities that steward the land and rely on wildlife for their survival. This particular spill took place near Kichwa land, CONAIE said on Twitter, alongside a video showing a thick black slick of oil coating marshy terrain. It’s one of hundreds of oil spills the Amazon has experienced over the years. 

OCP reported on Saturday that it’s working to contain the spill to prevent it from reaching any water bodies, and from forcing the country to halt exports again. But, in an interview with NBC News, a spokesperson for CONAIE underscored how lasting the damage that spills like this one can be, noting that the oil industry brings little more to the area than “death and destruction.” 

“Spills have become a part of our daily life, and we live with the contamination for decades,” the spokesperson said. “We are calling on the government to halt oil expansion plans and properly clean up this spill and all the others that continue to contaminate our territories and violate our rights.”