Two weeks ago, a pipeline leak in coastal Mexico sent 1,500 barrels of oil gushing into a river, killing many fish. Now, says a report by Reuters, it could take another month to fully clean up the mess.
The oil is currently poisoning the Coatzacoalcos River. State-owned oil company Pemex has recovered about two-thirds of the mess, under supervision from the environmental protection agency Profepa.
The priority, said Profepa official Sergio Herrera, "is about containing the emergency. There will be further actions to clean the river, the banks of the river, and the zone where the damage has happened."
Pemex has contracted 140 workers to clean up the oil.
The company claimed the leak was the result of vandalism; that fuel thieves regularly tap into Mexico's pipeline network to steal gas and oil for sale on the black market, and in the process cause small spills.
Despite this claim, worrying images of blackened water and sickened animals have environmental groups calling Pemex's credibility into question - these groups are careful to note that Pemex has a spotty safety record: In December 2010, 28 people were killed when a giant spill caused by an illegal pipeline tap east of Mexico City caught fire and exploded. The Coatzacoalcos river oil spill is the biggest since that incident.
What's more, the environmental concern is perhaps doubled due to the fact that Pemex is expressing an ambitious desire to look for oil in the deep waters off the Gulf of Mexico.
"If Pemex is incapable of dealing with an oil spill in a river, how would they contain one at a deepwater project in the Gulf of Mexico?" asked Beatriz Olivera, of Greenpeace Mexico.
Mexico-based energy analyst David Shields suggested Pemex's problems could increase if they pursued oil exploration near the Gulf, and said moreover that upstream production and exploration posed different - and perhaps greater - risks than overland transport of oil for refining.
"The main onshore problem that Pemex is having with pipelines," said Shields, "is vandalism. If you have some kind of problem with deepwater platforms, it's very unlikely to be vandalism."
Mexico is currently the world's number seven oil producer, said a report by AlertNet, and has stabilized output at approximately 2.6 million barrels a day after a sharp decrease in its largest fields. Seeking to replace lost output from some of those fields - which are aging - Pemex looks upon the estimated 29 billion barrels of oil beneath its Gulf waters with envious eyes. Pemex wants to have about 50 deepwater oil wells by 2015.
The National Hydrocarbons Commission - the oil watchdog in Mexico - remarked that Pemex has not yet obtained all of the necessary safety equipment it would need to deal with potential deepwater accidents.
"We have not seen spills decline," Commission president Juan Carlos Zepeda was careful to note. Quite the contrary, "in the past three years, the number of incidents have increased, which is a risk factor."
Photo: In a 2005 oil spill, Pemex workers clean up the mess in the Coatzacoalcos River. Dario Lopez-Mills/AP