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In this Sept. 25, 2019 photo released by the Sergipe state Government, spilt oil lays on the beach on Sergipe state, Brazil.
Sergipe State Government vi/AP
Environment

Heroic Volunteers in Brazil Are Cleaning Up a Massive and Mysterious Oil Spill

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Oil spills cause serious harm to marine environments and coastal communities. The United Nations Global Goal 14, Life Below Water, calls on countries to stop all ocean pollution to protect marine life. You can join us in taking action on related issues here.

A massive oil spill of unknown origins has been continuously washing up on 2,200 kilometers of coastline in northeastern Brazil for nearly two months, according to the Guardian.

The oil spill is degrading famous beaches, harming ecosystems, and disrupting economic sectors such as tourism and fishing. 

At least 15 sea turtles and two sea birds have been killed by the spill so far, the BBC notes. After nearly two months of inaction, the federal government is now reportedly sending in 5,000 troops to help clean and contain the spill.

The sudden deployment was spurred by ongoing criticisms of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has so far sent insufficient resources to deal with the spill, identify its source, and support affected communities, according to critics. 

Instead, the president has accused environmentalists and nonprofits of causing the spill, the BBC reports. He has similarly blamed these groups for causing fires in the Amazon rainforest, which is burning at an alarming rate

In the absence of government action, thousands of volunteers have instead been stepping up to clean up the spill themselves. With gloves, shovels, and buckets, teams are scooping and skimming oil off of coastal waters — like removing a thick layer of film.

“People in the north-east are cleaning the oil from the coast with their own hands while the federal government is immobile,” Joel de Oliveira Filho, the owner of a guesthouse on Carneiras beach, told the Guardian. 

Here are some of the scenes from the multi-week clean-up event. 


Oil spills are common in marine environments. They often occur when a boat has an accident, when an oil extraction event goes wrong, or when oil pipelines that deliver water from the ocean floor rupture. 

The infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2011 was caused by a pipeline rupture. More than 3.19 million barrels of oil eventually spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, causing catastrophic harm to marine life.

But these events only account for a small fraction of total spills, according to the National Geographic. In fact, recreational boats, natural leakage in the ocean, and runoff from roads account for the bulk of the oil pollution in the ocean.

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It remains unclear what caused the oil spill in Brazil and if it’s decreasing or increasing, but experts have discovered that the crude oil originated from Venezuela, the BBC reports.

Because crude oil is dense, the spill is only appearing when it arrives at the shore. It’s otherwise sinking, meaning it could be pervading the water column — which would make a clean-up effort especially difficult because it would require sophisticated pump systems and filtration devices to pull the oil from far below the surface.

If the region is going to recover from this environmental hazard, the federal government will have to step up and take over the clean-up effort, according to volunteers.