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Jul 6, 2017

News Five Investigates Sarstoon River “Oil Spill”

On Wednesday, OCEANA and the Belize Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage organized a media tour to Cadenas, and an additional trek to Gracias A Dios in southern Belize. This was to follow up on a crude oil spill that happened over in Guatemala but not officially reported. From our own investigation online, a driver was carrying what’s reported to be crude oil owned by a company called Empresa Petrolera del Itsmo, which was being transferred in an oil tanker by another company called Grupo Fama. When the truck overturned, a cistern burst open and four thousand gallons of reported oil flowed out into a river that has a tributary that leads to the Sarstoon River. The alarm was sounded across southern Guatemala, and it spread like wildfire here in Belize because of widespread concern whether the Belize side of the Sarstoon had been contaminated. News Five’s Andrea Polanco joined in the trip along the Sarstoon and has the following report.


Wil Maheia

Wil Maheia, Founder, BTV

“If it would have reached the Belize side, it would have been here given the amount of time – it is two days now, almost three days now and we haven’t seen any on this side.”


Andrea Polanco, Reporting

As far as our eyes are able to see, there is no visible sign of oil in the Sarstoon Riveron Belize’s side of the tributary. We’ve travelled all the way up to Cadenas, just a few miles away from where the spill took place, but we don’t see any remnants of the Guatemalan oil spill that reportedly happened sometime between Friday and Saturday. We have traveled for about three hours by boat from Punta Gorda to Cadenas and while we didn’t observe any oil within Belizean waters, it has brought the issue of Belize’snational oil spill contingency plan to the forefront – a document that, from all accounts, is still under review since 2015.


Alyssa Carnegie

Alyssa Carnegie, Director of Communications, OCEANA Belize

“An occasion like this is an opportunity for all of us to take stock and see where we are and ensure that the right processes are put in place and that we have those safeguards.”


Froyla Tzalam

Froyla Tzalam, Executive Director, SATIIM

“We recognize that whatever happens in Guatemala eventually ends up in Belize. We talking about agriculture spill, we’re talking about in this case, petrol. The other issue is when I look at it from the B.N.N. Cap and APAMO Cap, talking about mitigating disasters, I think this oil tanker issue is such disaster and I am not sure if there is a plan, if it has been shelved, if it is enforceable. So, it does highlight some concerns of mine, like where is the G.O.B regarding this issue and if such a tanker were to overturn in Belize, what would be the implications of that on the physical environment. So, it is from that perspective I am concerned.”


And the concern is not just from Belizeans. Leonel Sagastume is a Guatemalan fisherman who fishes daily along this river but his livelihood, like thousands of others, was disrupted when this oil tanker overturned in the village of Arenal in the Itzabal District in southern Guatemala. The tanker spilled four thousand gallons of crude oil into the Gracias A Dios River – which has a waterway called Rio Choconthat feeds directly into the Sarstoon River. There are about seven communities in the immediate area of the spill; residents say the impact was visible and immediate.


Leonel Sagastume

Leonel Sagastume, Guatemalan Fisherman, Mendez Villager [Translated]

“Up here it affected a lot of people, right where it overturned and where the oil spilled is where the fish have died as well.”


Aurelia Caal Cho

Aurelia Caal Cho, Guatemalan, Puerto Modesto Mendez Villager [Translated]

“Yes. We are worried because it has contaminated the water and so right now we can’t use the river. We have some water here at home but the people who use from only the river are more concerned.”


Guatemalan media reported that on the day of the spill the communities in the area, primarily Arenal and surrounding villages, were concerned that the oil would reach all the way down to Sartsoon River – a river that is heavily depended on for fishing. And those fears came to pass, according to Sagastume. They observed the oil in the Sarstoon – by Monday it went down river as far as Sarstoon Island.


Leonel Sagastume [Translated]

“Here [at Sarstoon River] one of my friends saw it day before yesterday [Monday] and it was already reaching the river mouth from this side. From Belize, since the river is the only boundary – the only thing that divides Belize side it is very close.”



“Has it reached the Sarstoon Island?”


Leonel Sagastume [Translated]

“Supposedly so. We were just talking with the other guy there that it should have already reached.  From day before yesterday it had already gone down below. From here to downstream it was gone and only little remnants left behind you could see.  It was covering all of Chile Cadena, through here – all of this area – it passed here already – where I passed through up to Aguacate where I went, it was on the water covering the river surface. Yes, all of through here, everywhere, you couldn’t stand the smell of it – it was so strong, smelled so badly.  The village of Arenal was most affected because they pump the water from the river here to drink it – right from where that oil spill. That moment when it happened they couldn’t use the water, but now that it has gone down stream, all of it was floating down on the surface of the water. We couldn’t even put our hands in the water because if you put it in the oil would just fall off. It was a lot.”


And so while we didn’t see any physical evidence of oil in Belizean waters, southern residents remain concerned that there could be impacts, if not for Belize, then for neighboring countries.


Wil Maheia

“This is a wakeup call for us to know that there are thousands and thousands of gallons of crude going back and forth within a few hundred feet of the Sarstoon River and you can hear the trucks right behind us on the Pan American Highway. There needs to be some kind of mitigation put in place to prevent any accident that should happen – we know accidents do happen. The fact is that this river flows into the Gulf of Honduras. It is an amazing bird life down there, an amazing fishery down there. If oil should spill in those areas it will affect thousands of people not only on the Belize side, but also on the Guatemala and Honduras side.”


Guatemalans in the area say that authorities and officials of the company visited their communities and offered compensation to those whose livelihood were affected. They said that while the tanker was removed shortly after the spill, they haven’t seen any effort to clean up the area and don’t know if anyone will be charged for the oil spill. Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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