On March 3, the Lizama 158 well, operated by the state oil company Ecopetrol, began spewing crude in a remote area of central Colombia. This incident, which appeared to be contained and isolated for the energy giant, quickly deteriorated when heavy machinery failed to tap the well. The oil that surfaced from the Lizama three weeks ago has resulted in an environmental disaster. Conservationists claim it is the worst this country has witnessed in decades, and has contaminated the watershed and streams that flow into the Sogamoso River.
The situation is so severe that the National Agency of Environmental Licenses (ANLA) claims 24,000 barrels of black crude have spread over 24 kilometers, forcing the evacuation of entire fishing communities that depend on the Lizama and Sogamoso rivers for their livelihoods. Attempts by Ecopetrol, which runs the country’s largest oil refinery in Barrancabermeja, to contain the spill, located 100 kilometers west of the contaminated area, so far, have proven futile.
The Sogamoso river originates in the Eastern Cordillera, the mountainous region between the departments of Boyacá and Santander, and flows into the country’s longest river, the Magdalena. According to Claudia González of the ANLA, 70 families are being treated for vomiting, headaches and dizziness. The spill has also killed an estimated 2,400 animals, among them cattle, reptiles and endemic birds.
Even though Ecopetrol originally stated the spill was under control, the government claims the clean-up effort has been mismanaged and undermined. The ANLA has launched an official investigation into what caused Lizama 158 to rupture, and why Ecopetrol didn’t take action on a warning two years ago from the Controller General’s Office to abandon the wells in the foothills of the Lizama-Nutria region. Ecopetrol’s response, according to the Contraloría General, was that it “lacks resources for intervention and maintenance.” A 2016 audit by government agencies confirmed that 30 abandoned wells in the Middle Magdalena were at risk of breaking.
Until Saturday, March 24, the oil company had failed to provide proper contingency plans, raising the ire of Santander’s governor Didier Tavera. “What we can say is that Ecopetrol has been incompetent and incapable of understanding an emergency and environmental tragedy like the one that is happening,” remarked Tavera to Blu radio network.
Ecopetrol’s president Felipe Bayón believes that seismic activity in the department of Santander on March 1 could be responsible for cracking the well and not technical failures. Santander is one of the Colombia’s most seismic regions with daily tremors reported by the country’s geological department Ingeominas. Bayón says a high-pressure relief unit, imported from the United States, will reduce pressure and allow engineers to cut the flow of hydrocarbons. This could take up to two weeks. Meanwhile, Ecopetrol has guaranteed the installation of 17 control points, including barriers, dykes, and evacuation pools alongside the 20 kilometers of the Lizama river and 18 kilometer riverbank of the Sogamoso.
After a visit to the affected areas, Colombian Environment Minister Luis Gilberto Murillo, asked the ANLA to impose sanctions against Ecopetrol. “If we find that Ecopetrol hid information that would have prevented this incident, they will face drastic sanctions,” warned Murillo. “This is very serious and cannot happen again.”