Peru Vows to Make Refinery Pay for Oil Spill After Tonga Volcano Eruption

LIMA, Peru — More than two weeks after a botched tanker delivery sent thousands of barrels of crude oil spilling into the sea off Peru, black waves are still fouling beaches and fingers are still being pointed.

The explanation for what went wrong seems no closer to an end than the cleanup itself.

The oil has washed across some 27 miles of Pacific coastline, pushed north by the wind to beaches along Peru’s desert coast, leaving in its wake countless dead fish and marine animals coated in oil, including locally endangered sea otters and penguins that live on rocky islands in two protected marine reserves.

“For the ecosystem to fully recover, we’re talking 10, maybe 20 years,” said Deyvis Huamán, a biologist with Peru’s national park system.

The spill was at the Pampilla refinery, operated by the Spanish company Repsol near the Peruvian capital, Lima. Its scope has grown far beyond early expectations, as the company initially reported only a tiny leak amounting to about seven gallons.

That was off by a factor of tens of thousands. Once the true extent of the disaster was known, the president of Peru stood on an oil-stained beach and denounced what he said was “one of the biggest ecocides on our coast.”

The question now is: Who is responsible?

Repsol says the Jan. 15 spill was caused by strong ocean swells set off by an unusually powerful volcano that erupted thousands of miles away, off the island nation of Tonga. It says the event damaged an underwater system of pipes and hoses from which moored oil tankers pump crude into its refinery, and notes that while neighboring nations issued a tsunami warning, Peru did not.

“We didn’t cause the ecological disaster,” a spokeswoman for the company told Peruvian TV in the days after the spill.

But this week, the government announced that it was suspending all operations at the Repsol refinery, an action the company called “disproportionate and unreasonable.” A state prosecutor had already begun looking into whether the company properly maintained its underwater system of pipes and tubes. And four high-ranking Repsol officials have been legally barred from leaving the country.

“We’re going to hold it responsible,” President Pedro Castillo declared at a rally. “We’re going to defend the sea, and we’re going to condemn and sanction the company that’s been polluting our sea.”

Still, Peruvian investigators say they will also look into the claim that the Peruvian Navy did not meet its duty to issue a tsunami alert. The Navy, which has come under criticism from other quarters for not issuing an alert, says it is conducting its own investigation as well.

Even some of the most basic facts are under dispute — among them the conditions of the waters off the refinery that day.

While the company cited unusual waves, the captain of the Italian tanker that was delivering Brazilian crude to the refinery said that the water had not been particularly rough and that the vessel had not collided with any part of the terminal’s infrastructure. The head of a local boating association has also said the sea was fairly calm, as have Navy officials.

The tanker, the Mare Doricum, which is owned by La Fratelli d’Amico Armatori, has been seized by the authorities. The company said it is cooperating with the Peruvian authorities, and noted that no accusations had been leveled against its crew.

Though the conditions that day are in dispute, there is little question that parts of Peru, like other nations far from the volcano, were battered by the tsunami.

In the north, two women were swept away by waves attributed to the eruption. And in the bay of Callao, where the refinery is, waves of about 1.5 meters, or about five feet, were registered by sea-level monitoring stations around the time when Repsol reports the spill occurred, said Francisco Hernandez of the Flanders Marine Institute. That may have “shaken up” the waters or caused strong underwater currents, he said.

In a statement to The New York Times, Repsol stood its ground.

“This accident was caused by an unforeseen maritime event to the best of our knowledge,” it said. “The ship’s moorings broke as a result of abnormal swell, as reported by the captain of Mare Doricum. Speculation that the sea was calm conflicts with publicly available empirical data from the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, not to mention hundreds of social media posts that afternoon.”

The waves were abnormal. Unforeseen is another matter.

While Peru did not issue a warning, there were multiple international tsunami alerts issued for the region, but neither the Navy nor Repsol restricted activities.

And though the company has publicized the development of its early-warning system for oil leaks, Repsol deployed a team of divers to inspect conditions underwater only the next day. The company says conditions weren’t safe for divers earlier.

“It’s clear there’s been a series of big mistakes,” said Gustavo Navarro, a former manager of La Pampilla who is now an energy consultant.

It is not Repsol’s first spill in Peru. A leak in 2013 attributed to a corroded pipeline released an estimated 196 barrels. The fines against the company then totaled less than $200,000, but the leftist government of President Castillo says this time will be different. Government ministers have promised “drastic” penalties, perhaps more than $50 million, with the aim of setting an example.

After operations at the refinery were suspended on Monday, the company said it would work with the government to reopen as quickly as possible. It noted that it supplies almost half of Peru’s fuel and said it would “do its best” to avoid shortages.

The company has also come under fire over its cleanup efforts.

Repsol has offered to hire fishermen and others left jobless because of the spill to help, but local news media have reported that the workers are being paid little and that some have passed out from breathing the fumes on crude-soaked beaches.

But with the spill having taken away their livelihood, at least for now, many have little choice.

The spill struck at the height of summer beach season, and working-class coastal communities that depend on fishing and tourism have been hit the hardest after a prolonged downturn tied to the pandemic.

“The restaurants, the cevicherías — no one is eating at them anymore,” said Roberto Zamora, 45, a fisherman in the district of Ventanilla, where the refinery is. “No one wants to buy fish, even fish from the high sea.”

Peruvian tourism officials put the losses at some $52 million, a figure that does not include the impact on fishermen.

Mr. Zamora said he had not worked a day since the spill first washed “black lava” across local fishing grounds, depriving him not just of his income but also of his family’s main source of protein.

He wants an explanation for what happened, a serious plan for remediation and compensation — and something even more important.

“What we want is respect,” Mr. Zamora said. “And this has been a lack of respect for our ocean. It hasn’t just affected me. It hasn’t just affected fellow fishermen. It’s an offense to the whole world.”

“They’ve poisoned the sea,” he said.

Raphael Minder and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.