LAGUNILLAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – Fishermen from San Luis on Venezuela’s oil-producing Lake Maracaibo dive from their boats and minutes later return to the beach, arms loaded with piles of sticky garbage coated black with crude oil.
The area has been blighted in recent weeks by several leaks from the tangle of antiquated pipes, pumps and other oil installations that crisscross the lake, one of the oldest energy hubs in the Latin American OPEC member.
The world may be focused on the much bigger oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but Maracaibo has suffered decades of smaller leaks that have contaminated the environment, affected local industries and even led to the idling of several US-bound tankers while crude was scrubbed off their hulls.
San Luis fisherman Alexander Vargas said the latest oil leaks were affecting his livelihood. “Last night I went out and caught just one fish,” he told Reuters despondently. “It was such a bad night, it would have been better to stay at home.”
Where he lives on the eastern shores of the lake, his fellow workers have been reduced to collecting crabs, which he said have been able to survive the pollution better than fish.
Many of those crabs are coated with oil, as are the mangrove swamps on the lake’s edges. Jutting from the oil-sheened water, which sometimes gives off a rotten smell, are the rusted remains of oil equipment from years gone by.
State oil company PDVSA blames the latest leaks on thieves vandalizing facilities, and says last week it recovered a large amount of equipment stolen from the lake.
Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez downplays the spills, saying they only amount to a tiny eight barrels per day (bpd).
Western Zulia state in which Lake Maracaibo is located produces 80O,000 bpd of Venezuela’s 2.9 million bpd output, according to the government.
Ramirez concedes that the situation in Lake Maracaibo is “chronic”, with abandoned machinery and thousands of miles of pipelines snaked “like spaghetti” on its bed.