By TIM JOHNSON
Herald Staff Writer
MARACAIBO, Venezuela -- A lake could hardly face more enemies than those
fouling the huge Lake Maracaibo.
Torrents of sewage pour into its depths. A stew of heavy metals and pesticides
taints its waters. Frequent bombings of an oil pipeline by leftist guerrillas in
neighboring Colombia pollute it with black goo. And mangroves protecting its
shores have vanished.
``Only a miracle has allowed Lake Maracaibo to remain alive,'' said Marcelo
Monnot, a state legislator and environmental activist.
Lake Maracaibo is no ordinary body of water. A repository of unusual wildlife,
is the largest lake with an outlet to the ocean in the Western Hemisphere.
Flamingos give a pinkish hue to some of its shores.
When Amerigo Vespucci and other explorers arrived 499 years ago, they were
impressed by the native stilt houses over the lake that they named the region Little
Venice -- the basis for the present name of Venezuela.
For 450 years, Lake Maracaibo remained largely pristine, purified by fresh
from the 235 rivers that keep it filled. Its beauty spawned poetic odes, even
But in the 1920s, the lake yielded a treasure -- crude oil -- that would
history of Venezuela, dot the surface of the lake with hundreds of oil derricks and
lead to an explosion in the area's population.
Beginning to treat sewage
The oil industry is only one of the panoply of enemies aligned against
experts say. Most damage comes from human waste. Until late last year, none of
the sewage generated by four million people living in the Lake Maracaibo Basin
was treated. It was pumped directly into the lake, fouling the water and leaving the
``Some of the beaches are disgusting,'' said Leisy Rondon, a spokeswoman
state-run Lake Maracaibo Conservation Institute.
Awareness of the problem has grown. Using financing from a regional
development bank, the institute inaugurated an $84 million sewage plant south of
Maracaibo 10 months ago. Three other sewage plants are under construction or
``By the end of next year, 90 percent of the sewage now entering the lake
be treated,'' said Evaluz Fernandez, vice president of the institute.
Less headway has been made against the estimated 400 leather-tanning,
food-processing and metalworking plants that dump waste, including cadmium and
copper, into lake waters, Fernandez said. Coal dust falling into the lake from
barges is also a major problem.
The oil industry has altered the lake in a variety of ways. The natural
channel that links lake to ocean was dredged, beginning in 1953, to a depth of 44
feet to permit passage of freighters. Since then, salt water has poured into the lake,
making its water brackish and unusable for irrigation.
Moreover, until a 1995 prohibition, contaminated underground water pumped
by oil rigs was cast off into the lake.
``This water contains [poisonous] metals, like vanadium and mercury, as
certain oils,'' Fernandez said.
In Colombia, Marxist guerrillas bomb a trans-Andean pipeline nearly every
to protest foreign exploitation of oil. So far this year, 23 separate spills have
flushed 63,000 barrels of Colombian oil into the Lake Maracaibo Basin, Monnot
A multicolor sheen is sometimes visible on the lake surface, a result of
small spills by the 700 to 1,000 oil-bearing boats that enter the lake every year.
Some spills are not so small. On Feb. 28, 1997, 24,000 barrels of crude gushed
into the Gulf of Venezuela at the lake's entrance when the Greek-flagged Nissos
Amorgos freighter ran aground.
Offshore terminal considered
The huge spill renewed interest in building an offshore pumping terminal
in the Gulf
of Venezuela so that tankers won't have to enter the lake. A feasibility study will
conclude in two years on what could be an expensive project.
``This is the solution to saving the lake, along with treating sewage,''
Arias Cardenas, governor of the surrounding state of Zulia.
About 27,500 miles of submerged pipeline crisscross the lake, 40 percent
rusted and out of use, Monnot said.
Agriculture is also a major contaminant. Farmers dump about 40,000 gallons
year of pesticides, including DDT smuggled from Colombia, on their crops,
Fernandez said. Much of it washes into the lake.
Experts recently found unusual levels of sterility and birth defects among
of the nearby agricultural towns of Jajo, Tuname, Montero, El Cobre and
Bailadores, she said.
Despite the toxic additives, fishermen regularly sell their catch from
the lake. In
1995, 20,029 fishermen lived off the lake.
``The contaminated fish live over there near the Pequiven [petrochemical]
it's living here, it hasn't been harmed,'' said fisherman Luis Pirela, holding up a
Experts disagree on how much drastic action is required to save the lake.
Monnot, the legislator, said deterioration ``is practically unstoppable,''
blamed weak government environmental efforts. Foreign oil companies largely
meet environmental norms, but local companies flout them, he said.
``It is like a park to which people come, play, and do whatever they want,''
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald