The massive oil spill on Brazil’s northeast coast beginning August 30 has now impacted 675 locations in 116 municipalities, with experts expecting the crude to soon reach as far south as Rio de Janeiro state. Yet, nearly three months after the first oil came ashore, speculation over the disaster’s source continues.
However, this week may have seen a break in the case. On November 17, the Laboratory for Analyzing and Processing Satellite Images (LAPIS) at the Federal University of Alagoas issued a statement saying that it had identified a possible culprit.
Yesterday, November 21, LAPIS director Prof. Humberto Barbosa testified to Brazil’s Congress that satellite images suggest a Marshall Islands-flagged tanker, the Voyager I, is responsible for the disaster.
Barbosa told the Chamber of Deputies that the Voyager had its AIS location transponder turned off during the July 19 to 24 period when satellite images first identified slicks off the coast of Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte. “Both [oil slicks] correspond considering the ship’s normal speed and course, although the Voyager I had its transponder turned off in that region,” he testified.
However, oil pollution watchdog SkyTruth raised questions about LAPIS’ conclusions. SkyTruth analyst Bjorn Bergman told Mongabay via email: “This doesn’t make sense because AIS shows other vessels at the scene. I also still haven’t seen anything to confirm that the vessel [Voyager I] ever left port in India in July.”
LAPIS reports that between July 19 and 24, 111 ships passed through the seas near the eastern tip of Brazil.
Emmanuel Belostrino, a crude oil market analyst, added data to support Bergman’s doubts. Belostrino works with Kpler, a data intelligence firm offering transparency solutions in commodity markets. Belostrino told Mongabay via email that the Voyager I’s signal registered off the coast of India on July 6. The ship’s next available signal registered on July 24, again near the port of Vadinar in India. According to Kpler’s calculations, a one-way journey from Vadinar to the port of José in Venezuela via Cape Town, South Africa takes 35 days at a speed of 12 knots.
Asked about this discrepancy, Barbosa told Mongabay that LAPIS had identified the Voyager I´s transponder signal off the Brazilian coast.
Bergman wondered whether LAPIS has additional information that hasn’t been made public. He also noted that SkyTruth has identified a bilge dump that seems to have originated from a Brazilian-flagged ship on July 19th. Bilge is the dirty water, oil and other contaminants that collect in the bottom of a ship’s hold. This bilge water is periodically pumped out either properly in port or improperly into the ocean. In the latter case, it is called ”bilge dumping.” Earlier this month, Bergman authored a blog post discussing ships that were “loitering” in the area off Brazil that analysts have identified as the location where the spill likely originated.
As of now, more than 6,000 tons of oil have been recovered from the Brazilian coastal environment according to CBN Radio. The Brazilian Navy reports the beaches of Espirito Santo, the state just north of Rio de Janeiro, were clean of oil as of November 20.
Even so, many observers continue to be critical of the government’s disaster readiness. Fabiana Martins, a board member of the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association, wrote in an article that her calls for better regulations to prevent and deal with marine accidents have met with skepticism.
Banner Image caption: More than 100 ships were off the Brazilian coast in the proximity of the oil spill at the time it occurred, so finding the guilty tanker is proving a challenge for scientists, especially since tankers moving oil out of U.S. sanctioned Venezuela often turn off their locator transponders becoming “dark ships” to avoid detection.