The only thing I blame
Shell for was the construction
of Puerto Miranda on the east coast of Lake Maracaibo
and opposite the city of Maracaibo. Shell,
together with the Esso and
Gulf subsidiaries called Creole
and Mene Grande, decided to
construct a deepwater port inside Lake Maracaibo from
which to export their crude oils, together with a tank
farm to store crude oils that were later sent to the
refineries in Amuay and Cardon on the Paraguaná
peninsula. It was criminal that the government of the
day should ever have approved this project.
Construction of the port started
at the end of the 1950’s and was completed in
1961. It has two jetties, each long enough to take two
tankers, so that four tankers can be serviced at one
time. It was, and still is, the largest crude oil export
port in South America.
Was this port
a great success?
Commercially it doubtless has been,
but at a great cost to the environment. Prior to building
the port, Lake Maracaibo was a sweet water Lake with
only a small contamination of seawater at the bar to
the Lake where it met the sea. But in order to build
Puerto Miranda it was necessary to dredge a 45 feet
channel from the bar to the port further south. This
meant that the seawater entered Lake Maracaibo and turned
the north part of it into brackish water where sea fish
can now be found. The channel silts up constantly and
has to be re-dredged every so often.
Contamination of the Lake was further
aggravated by the construction of El Tablazo, the huge
petrochemical complex just north of Puerto Miranda,
which then discharged much of its industrial waste into
the Lake. The problem was compounded as the city of
Maracaibo grew larger and its effluents, including waste
from a large slaughterhouse, went into the Lake. I believe
measures have been taken to improve things since then.
Shell subsequently paid for
sewage treating plants to be installed in the north
Lake area and deserves credit for this.
• The last time I
swam in the Lake was in the late 1970’s
at Punto Camacho, near Santa Rita, where I used
to go sailing. There was a green scum on the
surface, which made it unpleasant. I recalled
having bathed there some 20 years earlier when
the Lake was lovely and clean.
The project to build and operate the
port was known as the Joint North Terminal Scheme or
JNTS. Before building it, Shell,
the operator, had to acquire the land and this involved
buying and demolishing two fishing villages called El
Caimito and El Aceituno. They paid good money to the
owners, but it was still a local public relations disaster.
Shell had to acquire much
of the land twice over. This was because ownership of
the land was disputed and, after initial payment had
been made to the supposed owners, others came forward
with property titles dating back to Spanish Colonial
times. Could this be divine retribution for despoiling
one of nature’s great legacies that is 36 million
I have recently read an article by
Manuel Bermudez entitled “El Lago exige soluciones”
(The Lake demands solutions) where he writes
that, as usual, the oil company operators are being
blamed for the current contamination. He points out
this is only a half-truth and that there are other more
serious sources of contamination such as raw sewage,
slaughterhouse waste, chemical effluents, industrial
discharge, and now coal waste.
I would go further and say oil spills
cause a relatively small part of the contamination.
The most toxic elements are quickly lost through evaporation.
Most of the spills are soon skimmed by launches, broken
up naturally by wave action, or by the use of chemical
dispersants. Fortunately, PDVSA
[Venezuela's state oil company]
is not short of funds to take remedial action quickly.
The most recent problem caused by contamination
is the rapid growth of a plant called water lentil (duckweed),
which now covers a large part of the Lake. Fish are
not endangered because the plant is not toxic, but it
does clog up propellers so local fishermen cannot fish.
The authorities are removing tons every day but the
plant grows very quickly and some other solution is
rapid growth of a plant called water lentil
It is probably too late to do anything
about contamination by seawater, since Puerto Miranda
and El Tablazo are unlikely to be decommissioned. There
has been talk about constructing a substitute deepwater
port on the Caribbean coast, but it has never come to
anything because of the high cost. Some say it could
cost as much as $1,000 million [$1 billion],
though that is no more than a rough estimate.
year PDVSA expect
to make a windfall profit exceeding $5,000 millions
from the substantial rise in oil prices. Now
that PDVSA is also
funding social projects, would it not be wonderful
if they could set aside $1,000 million for constructing
the new port?
Or is this just
The pressing problem is to clean up
the Lake as soon as possible and then maintain it in
that condition. This means allocating money in the municipal
budget every year and not just when an emergency occurs.
This magnificent resource, the pride of all Zulianos,
should not be allowed to get into its present state
of contamination again.
If someone decides to form an association
“Friends of Lake Maracaibo,” I should like
to become a member. Meanwhile, may I encourage Manuel
Bermudez to collect into one article what he has written
on Lake Maracaibo’s contamination and then translate
it into English for the benefit of VHeadline.com’s
wider readership? It is essential all those interested
in protecting the environment should be aware of what
is happening in Lake Maracaibo.