Update Brazil's Biggest Spill In 25 Years

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Race Against Oil In Brazil

Workers Toil To Stop Downriver Flow Brazil's Biggest Spill In 25 Years 140-Mile Stretch Of River At Risk

CURITIBA, Brazil, July 18, 2000

(Reuters) Workers raced Tuesday to contain Brazil's biggest oil spill in 25 years as it flowed down the southern Iguacu River, endangering drinking water, farmland and animal life along a 140-mile stretch.

Parana state officials said the 1.06 million gallons of crude oil that leaked Sunday at a refinery operated by state-owned oil giant Petrobras constituted the worst river contamination ever in Brazil.

Environmental Minister Jose Sarney Filho threatened to fine Petrobras more than $80 million and assured disaster crews would stop the spill before it reached the world famous Iguacu waterfalls, which divide Brazil and Argentinanearly 400 milesdownriver.

"The barriers are working," Sarney Filho said. "Petrobras hired a company specialized in environmental disasters and their people arrived with adequate material."

But Parana's environmental agency warned the situation was much worse than Petrobras' oil spill six months ago in Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay, where 345,000 gallons blackened beaches and decimated marine life.

"There it was much easier to control the situation because in the river you have a current," agency president Jose Antonio Andreguetto told reporters.

Environmental experts downriver said the slick was nearing an area where the Iguacu widened, at which point it would be very difficult to bring under control.

"What we are seeing is disorganization and Petrobras is improvising solutions," said Tereza Urban, coordinator of environmental group Rede Verde.

Petrobras brought in 400 people to place floating barriers and dig ditches off the river banks to divert oil and has hired U.S. cleanup specialists Clean Caribbean Cooperation. It expects to finish the operation in 10 days.

So far, Petrobras said it had collected 66,000 gallons of oilless than a tenth of the total.

The spill occurred 13 miles downstream from the state capital of Curitiba, sparing the prosperous city's 1.5 million inhabitants of any immediate danger. Curitiba is located 240 miles south of Sao Paulo.

But authorities warned that the slick could advance by Wednesday to Uniao da Vitoria, a town of 75,000 people located 140 miles west of Curitiba that depends on the Iguacu for drinking water and has an important hydroelectric dam.

Andreguetto said the oil "could contaminate not only other states but also other countries."

The Iguacu runs west to the awe-striking Iguacu Falls, possibly South America's top tourist attraction. It then flows into the Parana River, which turns into the River Plate before discharging into the Atlantic Ocean after Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Brazil's Foreign Ministry said it had informed the governments of Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay of its efforts to keep the oil from spilling over Brazil's borders.

Vice-President Marco Maciel, standing in for President Fernando Henrique Cardoso while he is in Africa, called a meeting Tuesday afternoon with top environmental officials.

Sarney Filho recommended slapping Petrobras with fines of up to 150 million reais ($83 million) above the $28 million fine handed down on Monday, because it had committed the same infraction twice in six months.

"All (legal options) that allow the ministry to fine the company will be used," he said.

Environmental organizations were gathered in Curitiba to urge neighboring populations to find, clean and warm contaminated birds until professional rescue groups arrive. The river is home to kingfishers, wild ducks and herons.

The current spill is the country's biggest since a 1974 spill in Guanabara Bay.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 18, 2000

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