By HEATHER BRADFORD
On Sunday, Dec. 22, a barge containing 600 gallons of diesel capsized in the Galapagos Islands. The islands, which are a UNESCO World Heritage site, are known for their endemism, with 80% of birds, 97% of reptiles, and 30% of the plants found only there. This unique wildlife includes several species of Galapagos tortoises, lava lizards, flightless cormorants, Galapagos penguins, and several species of Darwin’s finches. The specially adapted wildlife of the islands inspired Darwin’s thoughts on evolution. Because of its important place in the history of science, the fragility of its ecosystems, and exceptional biodiversity, even a relatively small oil spill warrants attention and concern.
The diesel spill occurred at the La Predial dock of San Cristobal Island. San Cristobal is the easternmost of the Galapagos Islands and was the first island visited by Charles Darwin in 1835. During the incident, a crane that was loading a barge with cargo containing an electricity generator suddenly toppled over. In a dramatic video of the event, the crane fell into the water upon the barge, sending the cargo into the Pacific Ocean and capsizing the craft.
Several workers jumped into the water to escape the sinking barge. The barge, named the Orca, was meant to transport the generator to Isabela Island, the largest island in the archipelago. Orca was used to ferry supplies and fuel from mainland Ecuador to the islands and was carrying 600 gallons of diesel when it overturned. Orca previously sank in February 2018 in the Guayas River due to a weight imbalance.
It is unknown how much of the 600 gallons of diesel escaped the vessel. The Ecuadorian Navy quickly moved to contain the spill by placing absorbent cloth and protective barriers in the water, and President Lenin Moreno declared the situation under control via Twitter on Monday, Dec. 23. The ecological impact is being assessed by the environmental ministry, but according to an article in Vice, oil can damage the salt glands of sea turtles, enlarge the livers of fish, and becomes ingested by birds as they preen.
A local advocacy group, SOS Galapagos, warned that spilled fuel would reach nearby Mann Beach, a popular public beach in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the Galapagos and population center of San Cristobal. They also called for the illegal and dangerous operations to be moved elsewhere.
It is not the first time that an oil spill has occurred on the Galapagos. In 2001, an oil tanker named Jessica ran aground off of San Cristobal Island, sending over 150,000 gallons of fuel into the ocean. According to research conducted by Princeton biologist Martin Wikelski, within a year, over 15,000 Marina Iguanas, constituting 62% of nearby Santa Fe Island population, perished. In a typical year, the mortality rate is 2 to 7%. Marine Iguanas are endemic to the Galapagos and sensitive to even small spills. This may be due to the fact that the previous spill killed the bacteria that aided in the iguanas in their digestion. Dead iguanas were found to have algae, their primary food source, in their stomachs, but starved because they could not digest it. Galapagos National Park sued PetroEcuador for $14 million in damages for the disaster.
In another incident, a cargo ship carrying over 15,400 gallons of diesel became stranded off the coast of San Cristobal Island. The Ecuadorian freighter, Galapaface I, had its 46 tanks of oil it was carrying unloaded and was drained of its fuel to avoid a disastrous leakage. The ship remained stranded for two months until it could be towed 20 miles away, then sunk in an area where it was deemed to have less ecological impact. In 2015, a cargo ship named Floreana also ran aground near San Cristobal. Fuel and 300 tons cargo were unloaded, which prevented any major ecological impacts from occurring. Thankfully both incidents were not major disasters.
It is fortunate that no workers on the Orca were seriously injured and perhaps the impact on wildlife can be mitigated by early efforts to contain the spill, but the fact that the barge previously sank calls into question the safety of the workers and the integrity of the vessel in the first place. According to the Maritime Herald, the Orca sank in February 2018 at the Caraguay dock in Guayaquil, when it was being loaded with asphalt to take to the Galapagos. Protective barriers were erected to prevent the spread of fuel into the Guayas River. A 25-year old-worker named Juan Jose C. was trapped inside the overturned barge. It is uncertain what transpired between the February 2018 incident and more recent capsizing of the Orca.
Almost 87% of the cargo sent to the Galapagos arrives by sea since it is the least expensive means of transporting goods. Since only two of the islands have airports, maritime transport is a structural and geographic necessity. A 2010 report by the Governing Council of Galapagos cited several problems with maritime transport. Problems relevant to incident include the small and aging fleet of cargo ships utilized by the islands and the fact that docks in the Galapagos are multi-use, serving fishing, fueling, and inter-island transport.
Of course, maritime shipping within capitalism has some inherent risks, such as the introduction of invasive species through ballast water, dumping of sewage and waste, air pollution of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, and accidental spills. These risks could be reduced, but the profit motive incentivizes externalities such as pollution, oil spills, and shoddy waste management. Nearly all cargo ships use diesel engines and diesel generators for electricity, though the industry itself accounts for 2-3% of annual CO2 emissions.
While it may be possible that some shipping could switch to zero emissions technology, such as hydrogen fuel cells or electric batteries, as some small research vessels have, technology cannot solve the fundamental flaws of capitalism. In the case of hydrogen fuel cells, this could increase ozone depletion, and electric batteries rely on conflict ridden rare earth minerals and cobalt. Alternative fuels also exist within capitalism, the existence of which is predicated upon war and the drive towards the lowest wages. The Galapagos Islands have more environmental regulations than most places, but they still exist within a capitalist framework that relies upon fossil fuels, hazardous working conditions, and a drive for less oversight and regulation. Because of this combination, the islands, as protected as they are, can never truly be sheltered from ecological disaster, because this is the inevitable outcome of capitalism.
Each day brings news of the endless stream of horrors inflicted upon the planet by fossil fuel driven capitalism. From wildfires and scorching heat in Australia to this year’s ravaging high temperatures in the Arctic, nowhere in the world is untouched by the impact of capitalism’s catastrophic dependency on fossil fuels. The recent diesel spill in the Galapagos Islands is one of the myriad of daily reminders of the dire need to end capitalism and build a planned socialist economy based upon renewable resources.
Photos by Heather Bradford, from a just-concluded visit to the Galapagos Islands.