An oil spill that began nearly a month ago in the eastern Colombian department of Santander, forcing the evacuation of at least 79 people and wreaking major environment damage surrounding the nation’s largest river, has finally been controlled, according to state-controlled oil company Ecopetrol.
“The Lizama 158 well stopped flowing,” said company head Felipe Bayón Pardo today, referencing the name of the blown-out well.
The environmental harm is ongoing, however, and Ecopetrol’s response to the catastrophe has drawn widespread criticism.
The disaster began on March 3 following a disruption at the Bogotá-based company’s Lizama 158 well, which is located in the municipality of La Fortuna near the company’s refinery in Barrancabermeja. Initially, Ecopetrol stated that it managed to control the oil spill, which is an issue the company has dealt with frequently in rural Colombia due to guerrilla attacks on pipelines.
But early attempts to halt the flow of oil proved ineffective. Though Ecopetrol was able to reduce the pressure of the leak to some degree, set up barricades, and implement other mitigation procedures, the situation continued to grow worse.
The runaway flow spilled what a leading public environmental agency in Bogotá, the National Authority of Environmental Licensing (ANLA), estimated as 24,000 barrels of oil into the environment. That figure would make this the largest spill in Colombia in recent memory. The contamination spread throughout this area of the Middle Magdalena Basin, including the Sogamoso River, Lizama Ravine, and Muerto Canyon.
Ecopetrol, in a statement, said that it “estimates the quantity of oil that flowed into these water sources at 550 barrels mixed with mud and rainwater.”
Another report chronicling the damage claims that thousands of animals, including birds, aquatic species, and other wildlife, have been killed by the pollution and that local fishers have been forced to halt operations. Ecopetrol said that it has reached out to some of the affected fisherman to aid in the river cleaning project.
Though the cause of the well malfunction remains uncertain — Bayón has speculated that seismic activity may have been the impetus — onlookers, including former environmental minister Manuel Rodríguez, have pointed blame at Ecopetrol.
Rodríguez, speaking to Blu Radio, accused Ecopetrol of being the “company that has done the greatest environmental damage in the nation.” He also questioned whether the firm had chosen to “save a few pesos” over instituting proper environmental management policies.
Though Ecopetrol says that the broken well has stopped gushing oil, this week, the company called for further help from a specialist agency from the United States. The foreign team arrived on March 28 in two 747s with heavy machinery, including a 60-ton “snubbing unit,” that the company said in a statement will be able to “close the well definitively.”
Additionally, after conducting an initial investigation this month, ANLA mandated that Ecopetrol increase its cleanup resources, pumping facilities, and solid-waste-removal procedures. The oil company also must analyze the potential risks presented by surrounding wells, continue monitoring local water and air conditions, and reinforce efforts to make operations in the area more resilient to potential incidents in the future.
On top of the environmental catastrophe, the incident has caused considerable reputational harm to Ecopetrol, which has planned to invest up to $4 billion USD this year in exploration and extraction efforts in an attempt to grow its reserves.
Given the challenges presented by low oil prices in recent years, the company had moved into austerity mode and seen its output fall. But its 2017 results had shown significant improvement, leading the company to announce plans to drill 620 new wells this year.
“We will not rest until we finally resolve this situation,” said Bayón.