The Miami Herald
November 29, 1998
Development, war threaten lake that once was poets' inspiration
Venezuelans awaken to how pollution hurts

             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, it
             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 so
             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 water
             from the 235 rivers that keep it filled. Its beauty spawned poetic odes, even
             symphonic works.

             But in the 1920s, the lake yielded a treasure -- crude oil -- that would change the
             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 the lake,
             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
             shores filthy.

             ``Some of the beaches are disgusting,'' said Leisy Rondon, a spokeswoman for the
             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 should
             be treated,'' said Evaluz Fernandez, vice president of the institute.

             Industrial pollution

             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 20-foot-deep
             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 up
             by oil rigs was cast off into the lake.

             ``This water contains [poisonous] metals, like vanadium and mercury, as well as
             certain oils,'' Fernandez said.

             In Colombia, Marxist guerrillas bomb a trans-Andean pipeline nearly every week
             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 near-daily
             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,'' said Francisco
             Arias Cardenas, governor of the surrounding state of Zulia.

             About 27,500 miles of submerged pipeline crisscross the lake, 40 percent of it
             rusted and out of use, Monnot said.

             Agriculture is also a major contaminant. Farmers dump about 40,000 gallons a
             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 residents
             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] plant. If
             it's living here, it hasn't been harmed,'' said fisherman Luis Pirela, holding up a

             Remedies debated

             Experts disagree on how much drastic action is required to save the lake.

             Monnot, the legislator, said deterioration ``is practically unstoppable,'' and he
             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,'' he


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