More than 2,400 animals have reportedly died in northern Colombia after an oil well burst into a major river in March. Hundreds of people remain without food or water, and 70 families have been treated for medical complications – vomiting, headaches, and dizziness – associated with the spill.
“I have practically nothing to eat. The entire life we had from the (Magdalena) river is now contaminated,” one resident told France24.
Oil started leaking on March 2 and continued to do so for 22 days. Today, the spill stretches in two rivers near the city of Barrancabermeja, spreading 24 kilometers (15 miles) down the Lizama river and 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) down the Sogamoso. Conservationists say it’s the worst environmental disaster the country has seen in years, but it’s unclear how many barrels actually spilled – reports range from 600 to 24,000.
"We are working 24 hours a day at the different checkpoints in Caño Muerto to ensure the recovery of this water source. We will not spare any effort until we do so," said Ecopetrol in a Tweet.
The state-run oil company Ecopetrol has reportedly brought in equipment to stop the spilling and says the spill is under control and an investigation underway, but National Geographic reports locals say the crude oil continues to flow into the Lizama and Sogamoso Rivers.
While the company says around 1,300 animals were rescued, more than 1,000 different species of trees were affected. Among the 2,400 dead animals recovered were fish, reptiles, birds, and livestock.
Located off the shore of the Magdalena River in Colombia’s department of Santander, the oil refinery is the largest in the country. Santander Governor Didier Tavera Amado publicly criticized the oil company for its response – which took three weeks – to the environmental emergency. According to Colombia Reports, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced a criminal investigation into the company’s alleged neglect while the Environment Ministry said it could impose sanctions after the company allegedly falsely reported the spill was controlled shortly after leaking.
Authorities are not sure what prompted the leak, but Ecopetrol’s president said seismic activity in the area could be responsible for cracking the well rather than technical failures. Ecopetrol has installed barriers, dikes, and evacuation pools along the rivers. The City Paper Bogota reports the company is now waiting for a high-pressure relief unit to arrive from the US, which will allow engineers to reduce pressure and work to cut the flow of hydrocarbons – a process that could take up to two weeks.