- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

MARACAIBO, Venezuela Under the scorching sun on Lake Maracaibo, oil wells by the thousands suck up natural gas and crude oil, the wealth of Venezuela, for home use and export.
But much more crude than usual has been ending up in the water since oil workers joined a national strike against President Hugo Chavez in December, environmentalists and government critics say.
Though the walkout against Mr. Chavez has fizzled, many oil workers remain off the job, and critics say the shortage of employees and lack of know-how among those who are working is causing severe environmental damage.
The state-owned oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, insists spills are small, rare and quickly controlled. It also blames many of the spills on striker sabotage.
The situation is difficult to check independently. The oil fields have been sealed off by army and national guard troops who enforce a no-fly zone over the lake and turn back boats carrying journalists trying to get a firsthand look.
"They won't let us overfly the lake to look for oil slicks anymore," said Eddie Ramirez, a former executive for the oil monopoly. "It's all militarized now. We still have people working in the oil fields who give us information. But it is getting harder to get."
Norberto Robodello, who directs the environmental-quality program of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, complains that there are areas even his ministry isn't allowed to see.
Crude oil is critical in Venezuela, the world's No. 5 exporter and a major supplier to the United States. Lake Maracaibo, 325 miles west of Caracas, is a major producer.
Since World War I, about 14,000 wells have been drilled in the lake. About 8,000 are active. Estimates vary, but 15,000 to 28,000 miles of pipes and tubes snake along the bottom.
"There is no operation in the world like this," said Felix Rodriguez, recently named by Mr. Chavez's government to lead oil operations in western Venezuela.
Oil operations are spread over 60 percent of the lake's 5,200 square miles. Latticed derricks poke skyward from platforms. Black pumping units bob up and down relentlessly. More modern wells extend a few feet above the water and are driven by electric pumps.
During a boat trip supervised by oil-monopoly officials, a reporter was shown what was described as sabotage at an electrical platform that powered 24 wells. Heavy cables appeared to have been cut in several places.
"Someone knew how to do it," said Luis Graterol, one of the officials. "You don't just do that with a pair of pliers. It takes a skilled electrician."
About 35,000 of the monopoly's 40,000 employees went on strike Dec. 2, joining the opposition general strike aimed at forcing out President Chavez, whom they blame for the country's political and economic strife.
The general strike failed, but the oil walkout continues. Mr. Chavez has fired more than 11,000 oil strikers and split the oil monopoly into eastern and western divisions to tighten government control over operations.
Production is creeping back to pre-strike levels. But the government says it is hampered by sabotage.
The private Venezuelan Environmental Foundation said it flew over the lake Dec. 11, before the flight ban, and spotted 17 spills. The foundation said one well was spewing oil and water more than 30 feet in the air, and experts estimated it was spilling 1,100 barrels a day.
Mr. Rodriguez, who blamed that spill on saboteurs, acknowledged there is government pressure to increase production.
"We need the money," he said. "But we do it with safety. We are working to diminish the risk. If we aren't sure, we won't open a well."
Lenin Herrera, a chemical engineer and former head of the Institute for the Conservation and Control of Lake Maracaibo, said spills of petroleum and production chemicals are a major source of contamination.
"There have been unjustifiable spills since the strike. There was a spill in January that went three or four days without being fixed. Later, a well spilled for two or three days," he said.
Mr. Herrera said the oil work force is 10 percent to 15 percent of normal levels and that many of those workers are not trained. "Yet they contend the petroleum operation is safe," he said.
Figures compiled by Zulia state's Maracaibo Lake Commission show that before the strike, there was a steady drop in spills in recent years to a rate of about four barrels for every million pumped from under the lake. Now the rate is equal to 40 barrels per million, the commission said.
"We didn't worry before. The government used international norms and standards," said Gonzalo Godoy, who leads the commission. "Now, with [the strike] a series of spills has begun."
His agency counted 67 spills in the first seven weeks of the strike, 15 of them in the lake, even though production was down substantially.
"The packing on those wells has to be checked and adjusted every day," Mr. Godoy said. "With so few people working, they just can't do it."
Industry specialists say that if the packings are not kept in order, they can begin to leak and that leaks can grow into full-blown spills.
People are also worried about chemical contamination.
"We suspect they are using dispersants to break up the slicks," Mr. Godoy said, noting that Venezuela and many other countries forbid their use.
Dispersants don't clean up oil but cause it to sink to the bottom, where both crude oil and dispersant can enter the food chain.
"The government says they aren't using them, that they use special boats to pick up the oil, but fishermen say they have seen it," Mr. Godoy went on.
Zulia state Gov. Manuel Rosales, one of Mr. Chavez's most resolute foes, declared a state of emergency in January because of reports of oil spills. He contended that there have been 79 spills, about 40 percent of them in the lake and the rest on platforms or surrounding fields.
"The spills have affected the flora and fauna of the lake," he said. "After days of this, they had not implemented a contingency plan."
The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources said it had reports of 96 spills from Dec. 6 to Jan. 28. Of the 84 it investigated, four were in the lake, the ministry said.
Critics also warn of natural-gas leaks.
Mr. Ramirez, the former oil executive, said the accepted standard for the escape of natural gas from wells into the atmosphere is 2 percent. Some of the rest is fed back into wells to keep pressure up while the remainder goes to domestic and industrial use.
"But now we hear that 30 percent is escaping," he said. "Most of that gas is high-sulfur, and it comes back as acid rain."
Oil-monopoly officials insist that gas leakage is nearly zero.
Mr. Herrera, the chemical engineer, is urging the strikers and oil monopoly to accept a truce and work together to fix the spills. "The political crisis will end. The economic crisis will end. But what is contaminating the lake will stay there," he said.
And the lake has problems beyond oil spills, others warn.
Raw sewage flows into it. There is significant runoff of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, organic materials and other matter from the farms of Zulia state, the country's major agricultural producer.
"The lake is aging prematurely," Mr. Herrera said.

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