Tsunami-Triggered Oil Spill Devastates Marine Wildlife on Peru’s Coast After Volcanic Eruption in Tonga

The country declared a 90-day environmental emergency after 264,000 gallons of crude oil contaminated a biodiverse swath of its coastal ecosystems

An aerial image of an oil spill off Peru's coast. The photo shows a contaminated beach smeared with black crude oil and workers in PPE trying to clean up the beach.
The oil slick in the ocean extended an area of over 320 football fields and has dirtied waters and beaches, resulting in many dead birds and seals washing up onshore.
  AP Photo/Martin Mejia

On January 15, a colossal underwater volcano in the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga exploded into a violent fury. The blast, equivalent to several megatons of TNT, left thousands of Tongans without water, internet and telecommunications access. It also triggered tsunami advisories across the Pacific Ocean from Australia to Japan and Alaska to Peru.

Unlike neighboring countries Chile and Ecuador, Peru did not close its beaches or issue warnings during the increased wave activity, and two women drown in abnormally large waves in the northern Lambayeque region of the country, report the New York Times' Natasha Frost, Mitra Taj and Eric Nagourney.

Meanwhile, an oil tanker was hit by the waves while offloading cargo at La Pampilla Refinery, located north of Lima and operated by the energy company Repsol. The boat spilled 264,000 gallons of crude oil along the country's coastline, reports Carlos Mandujano for the Agence France Presse. Initial reports connect the spill to waves caused by the eruption some 6,000 miles away, but an investigation into Repsol's role in the accident remains ongoing, reports the Atlantic’s Alan Taylor.

On January 20, Peruvian president Pedro Castillo declared an environmental emergency for affected areas, home to some of the country's most biodiverse ecosystems, Marco Aquino reports for Reuters

Repsol has denied responsibility for the spill and blamed the Peruvian Navy for not issuing tsunami warnings after the volcanic eruption, per Reuters.

Initially, Repsol reported that only seven gallons of oil were spilled, reports Mitra Taj for the New York Times. However, the environmental ministry estimated more than 6,000 barrels of oil had spilled and accused the company of failing to notify authorities in time about the true magnitude of the spill. President Castillo stated that the government is readying criminal, civil, and administrative sanctions, per the New York Times.  

The oil slick in the ocean extended an area of over 320 football fields, causing carcasses of birds, fish, seals and other marine fauna to wash ashore. After currents moved the oil about 25 miles from the refinery, a total of 21 beaches were left coated in a dark, sludgy film, and health authorities declared the areas a severe health risk, per AFP. The spill has also left hundreds of fishers without work and threatens two protected marine reserves that provide refuge for all kinds of sea life, including sea otters, red-legged cormorants and endangered Humboldt penguins, per the New York Times.

An image of a cleanup crew wearing white jumpsuits and rubber boots standing in oil sludge. Some of the workers are holding buckets.
Cleanup crews and volunteers have been working non-stop to clean the spill and save affected wildlife.
  AP Photo/ Martin Mejia

More than 40 birds were brought into Parque de Las Leyendas, a nearby zoo, after being rescued from contaminated beaches. Veterinarians on staff are racing to save the birds by bathing them with detergents to remove the sticky oil, per AFP. The animals were also given anti-bacterial drugs, antifungals, and vitamins to aid in their recovery.

Cleanup crews and volunteers have been working non-stop to clean the spill and save affected wildlife, per the Atlantic. Hundreds of cleanup workers have been brought in by Repsol, and the company has said they expect to have the cleanup finished by the end of February, the New York Times reports.

“The oil is going to be in the sea for months,” Juan Rivero, a marine biologist at Oceana Peru, tells the New York Times. “It’s going to affect our fauna. It’s going to affect our food, it’s going to affect our health, it’s going to affect our beaches.”