25 de marzo del 2001
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Death Stalks Brazilian Oil Workers

By Mario Osava

At least 92 people have died in accidents related to petroleum exploitation in Brazil over the last three years, according to industry experts.

RIO DE JANEIRO - Petroleum is increasingly associated with death in Brazil. This perception was reinforced by the Mar 20 accident that led to the sinking of the world's largest offshore oil rig, which took nine of the 11 victims with it to the bottom of the ocean.

Three explosions early in the early morning hours of Mar 15 knocked out a support column, leaving Platform 36 of the state-run oil company Petrobras listing at a 36-degree angle. The enormous floating structure in an area known as Cuenca de Campos included 31,400 tons of iron, stood 119.15 meters above the sea, and ultimately sank 180 km northeast of Rio de Janeiro.

The blasts caused panic among the 175 workers on the platform at the time, and their evacuation took three hours. A safety team tackled the flames surrounding one of the support columns, and they died - probably in the third explosion, or they were trapped among the girders.

But this was not the most serious accident involving Petrobras installations, in terms of human lives and environmental damage. In February 1984, an oil pipeline explosion killed 93 people in a 'favela' (slum neighborhood) of Cubatao, a city 60 km from Sao Paulo.

Six months later, 36 of the petroleum company's employees died and 42 more were injured on another Cuenca de Campos oil rig when a gas leak triggered fires and explosions.

In January 2000, an oil pipeline burst, spilling 1.3 million liters of petroleum into Guanabara Bay, in Rio de Janeiro, aggravating the already suffering marine environment and destroying mangrove swamps.

The following July, the victim was the Iguazú River in the southern state of Paraná, which was covered by a slick of four million liters of crude spilled from a damaged pipeline.

In February, a 50,000-liter spill occurred in Morretes, also in Paraná.

The number of disasters has escalated in recent years. According to the Technical Federation of Oil Workers, 92 people have died in the last three years, and 66 of the victims were not Petrobras workers, but employees of firms subcontracted to perform petroleum-related services.

Contracting out, a growing practice implemented as a means to cut costs, is one of the causes of so many accidents, because the contracted companies hire workers who lack appropriate training, say the unionists.

Petrobras, which at one point employed 57,000 people, now has less than 34,000 on its own payrolls, but uses the labor of 80,000 through subcontracted firms.

The oil firm has been operating ''at risk'' for several years because its priorities are increased productivity and high profits, and this puts human and environmental safety on the sidelines, said Vilmar Berna, editor of 'Jornal do Meio Ambiente' (Journal of the Environment).

The loss of the national petroleum monopoly and the partial privatization of the sector, which demand competitiveness, are the driving force behind the state oil company's approach.

Petrobras argues, however, that its accident rate is similar to that of the oil industry in other countries, whether they occur on offshore rigs, oil tanker ships, pipelines or other areas.

In the case of Platform 36, the authorities are optimistic. When the rig sank, 1.2 million liters of diesel fuel escaped, but there is little risk that it will reach nearby beaches, according to Rui Fonseca, Petrobras' general manager of Safety, Environment and Health.

Evaporation, the clean-up measures implemented, and currents pushing the slick out to open seas all contribute to reducing the threat to Brazil's coastline.

But environmentalists and experts alike are waiting to see what happens to the 340,000 liters of crude that could escape from the pipes that connected the platform with the oil wells, all of which is sitting on the ocean floor, 1,360 meters below the surface.

* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent

Copyright © 2001 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados


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