The Contamination of Lake Maracaibo

Lake Maracaibo (Photo: Santiago Padilla)

Having lived and worked in the Zulia State for 15 years, I can claim to be an adopted son of that land (“maracucho asimilado”). I certainly spent many happy years there and have a soft spot for both Zulia and its people. It is fortunate to be blessed with fine farming land and one of the loveliest stretches of water in creation, Lake Maracaibo.

I am also proud to have worked for Compania Shell de Venezuela for 22 years. It was a fine company that sought to develop its staff through job rotation and job training. You felt promotion was obtained on merit and that your bosses were there because they were capable people.

The only thing I blame Shell for was the construction of Puerto Miranda on the east coast of Lake Maracaibo and opposite the city of Maracaibo. Shell, together with the Esso and Gulf subsidiaries called Creole and Mene Grande, decided to construct a deepwater port inside Lake Maracaibo from which to export their crude oils, together with a tank farm to store crude oils that were later sent to the refineries in Amuay and Cardon on the Paraguana peninsula. It was criminal that the government of the day should ever have approved this project.

Construction of the port started at the end of the 1950’s and was completed in 1961. It has two jetties, each long enough to take two tankers, so that four tankers can be serviced at one time. It was, and still is, the largest crude oil export port in South America.

Was this port a great success?

Commercially it doubtless has been, but at a great cost to the environment. Prior to building the port, Lake Maracaibo was a sweet water lake with only a small contamination of seawater at the bar to the lake where it met the sea. But in order to build Puerto Miranda it was necessary to dredge a 45 feet channel from the bar to the port further south. This meant that the seawater entered Lake Maracaibo and turned the north part of it into brackish water where sea fish can now be found. The channel silts up constantly and has to be re-dredged every so often.

Contamination of the lake was further aggravated by the construction of El Tablazo, the huge petrochemical complex just north of Puerto Miranda, which then discharged much of its industrial waste into the lake. The problem was compounded as the city of Maracaibo grew larger and its effluents, including waste from a large slaughterhouse, went into the lake. I believe measures have been taken to improve things since then. Shell subsequently paid for sewage treating plants to be installed in the north lake area and deserves credit for this.

The last time I swam in the lake was in the late 1970’s at Punto Camacho, near Santa Rita, where I used to go sailing. There was a green scum on the surface, which made it unpleasant. I recalled having bathed there some 20 years earlier when the lake was lovely and clean.

The project to build and operate the port was known as the Joint North Terminal Scheme or JNTS. Before building it, Shell, the operator, had to acquire the land and this involved buying and demolishing two fishing villages called El Caimito and El Aceituno. They paid good money to the owners, but it was still a local public relations disaster. Shell had to acquire much of the land twice over. This was because ownership of the land was disputed and, after initial payment had been made to the supposed owners, others came forward with property titles dating back to Spanish Colonial times. Could this be divine retribution for despoiling one of nature’s great legacies?

I have recently read an article by Manuel Bermudez entitled “El Lago exige soluciones” (The Lake demands solutions) where he writes that, as usual; the oil company operators are being blamed for the current contamination. He points out this is only a half-truth and that there are other more serious sources of contamination such as raw sewage, slaughterhouse waste, chemical effluents, industrial discharge, and now coal waste.

I would go further and say oil spills cause a relatively small part of the contamination. The most toxic elements are quickly lost through evaporation. Most of the spills are soon skimmed by launches, broken up naturally by wave action, or by the use of chemical dispersants. Fortunately, PDVSA [Venezuela's state oil company] is not short of funds to take remedial action quickly.

The most recent problem caused by contamination is the rapid growth of a plant called water lentil (duckweed), which now covers a large part of the lake. Fish are not endangered because the plant is not toxic, but it does clog up propellers so local fishermen cannot fish. The authorities are removing tons every day but the plant grows very quickly and some other solution is being sought.

It is probably too late to do anything about contamination by seawater, since Puerto Miranda and El Tablazo are unlikely to be decommissioned. There has been talk about constructing a substitute deepwater port on the Caribbean coast, but it has never come to anything because of the high cost. Some say it could cost as much as $1 billion, though that is no more than a rough estimate.

This year PDVSA expects to make a windfall profit exceeding $5 billion from the substantial rise in oil prices. Now that PDVSA is also funding social projects, would it not be wonderful if they could set aside $1 billion for constructing the new port? Or is this just wishful thinking?

The pressing problem is to clean up the lake as soon as possible and then maintain it in that condition. This means allocating money in the municipal budget every year and not just when an emergency occurs. This magnificent resource, the pride of all Zulianos, should not be allowed to get into its present state of contamination again.