Death Stalks Brazilian Oil Workers
By Mario Osava
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
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
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