Can We Avoid a Black Tide in the Lake of Nicaragua?

The canal will inevitably give rise to an oil spill, marking an end to the value of Cocibolca’s water.

By Salvador Montenegro  (Confidencial)

Lake Nicaragua
Lake of Nicaragua (Cocibolca). Photo: Grace Gonzalez

HAVANA TIMES –  If the plan to construct an inter-oceanic canal across the Lake of Nicaragua (Cocibolca) should come to fruition, yet another unsettling question arises – not “whether or not a catastrophic event might someday occur as a result of hydrocarbons spilling from a damaged boat and causing a black tide in the waters of the Great Lake?”, but:  “When will this catastrophe happen?”

The unfortunate recent incident in Nicaragua involving an uncontrollable fire in the storage tanks of the “PUMA Energy” transnational company in Ciudad Sandino and resulting escape of combustible toxic substances makes it clear that the national capacity to respond to catastrophic events of this kind is very limited; Nicaragua continues to depend on the provisions and actions of the companies and foreign franchises for this.

These companies have economic interests and priorities that don’t necessarily match those of the country. We’re in the hands of those who apply their own guidelines and regulations in the interest of said companies, employing a very lax interpretation of our environmental and national security regulations.

In the last few years, we’ve observed several instances of the contamination of subsoils and underground waters in different localities of our country caused by leaks in the fuel tanks of service stations. The insufficient preventive measures of these stations didn’t comply with the national laws, but information regarding their subsequent correction has remained inaccessible to the public.

All of these events and the accompanying processes have been wrapped in silence and secrecy, aided greatly by the underground nature of the settings where they occurred. They’re real cases, some caused by human error and others occurring by accident, but they happen.

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, 301 meters long and weighing 205 tons – the very size and class of tanker for which the Nicaraguan canal initiative was conceived – ran aground in Prince William Sound due to human error.  The tanker spilled 44 million liters of crude oil along the Alaskan coast. Today, 27 years later, the clean-up operation is still going on.

This wasn’t even the worst example of a black tide in history; in reality it was a relatively minor one (number 54 in the history of oil spills).  Nonetheless, the fishing industry never recovered and the environmental damages continue to be felt. To compare magnitudes: if each one of the two PUMA energy tanks that burned in Puerto Sandino contained 144,000 barrels of Brent crude the total involved would be 45,792,000 liters or 45,800 cubic meters.  We don’t know how much fuel was in each tank, how much burned, how much drained out. But clearly we’re not talking about an event of minor scale, but an incident with severe environmental, social and economic consequences for Nicaragua.

In a world in which we’ve developed an extreme dependence on oil, the processes of extraction, transportation, refining and storage have become normalized and perfected. Security has increased greatly and we’ve managed to reduce accidents and undesirable events. Despite this, a 100% infallible system of catastrophe prevention doesn’t exist anywhere in the world.  Daily events confirm this.

The rights that Law 840 concedes to an obscure Chinese company authorizes it to excavate a channel along the bottom of Great Lake Cocibolca to facilitate the transit of the largest vessels in the world.  Unfortunately, these are also the most fragile and vulnerable due to their inherently minimal maneuverability.

In crossing Cocibolca, these leviathans will confront average wind speeds of 32 km/hr pushing against their flanks.  Since these ships are more than 300 meters long and 80 meters high, the surface of the boat that offers resistance to the wind acts as a giant sail. There’s no possibility of compensating for the lateral force since they would have to advance at very low speed within a relatively narrow channel.  All of this makes it inevitable that some ship, at some moment, will be dragged along the slope of the channel.

It doesn’t need to crash; it’s enough to be dragged along the sand as happened to Exxon Valdez to produce breaks in the hull. A break means that fuel spills out, and it doesn’t necessarily have to come from a super-tanker to be lethal. Any class “E” container ship accidently damaged would leak at least 5 thousand cubic meters of its fuel, enough to destroy forever the quality of Cocibolca’s water.

To the Chinese company, the lake is only of interest for its use in navigation; the quality of Cocibolca’s water is a matter of indifference to them.  For Nicaragua, the quality of the lake’s water is tied to our national development and the survival.

If something similar to the Exxon Valdez tanker running aground, or the fire in the PUMA tanks were to occur in a ship that was crossing Cocibolca – what would be the dimensions of the catastrophe?

Clearly, it would be the end of our hopes for the best uses of Cocibolca: potable water for all of Nicaragua; surpluses for exporting water to neighboring countries; water for irrigation in the dry western part of the country.

Evidently, the price of such a bad bet is too high, pitting a canal with mediocre profitability, against the possibility of a simple shipping accident involving any of the boats that travel the canal route.  It would mean environmental disaster for the waters of Great Lake Cocibolca, ruining forever the quality.

It can’t be denied that this enormous permanent risk is neither improbable nor avoidable: the canal, a sword of Damocles over Nicaragua, will inevitably occasion a hydrocarbon spill and with it the end of the value of the Lake Cocibolca’s water.

It’s important to remember that at present the technology that’s been developed to repair the black tides is for open marine waters, not for closed fresh water lakes. The goal of the clean-up operations that have existed up until now is to disperse the hydrocarbons – that is, to form an emulsion of the oil in the water using detergents.  In other words, the contaminant doesn’t disappear, but gets dissolved, while the effects on the flora and fauna continue.  In the ocean, dispersing the toxins into open waters is considered the solution to the contamination. Given that it’s a land-locked mass of water, that’s not a possibility for the great lake.

The environmental disaster that occurred in Puerto Sandino is highly serious. Although many of its effects on marine and coastal life might pass unnoticed to a casual observer, they would easily be detected by an impartial critical inspection.  This is an example of what could go wrong, a warning bell, so that it never comes to pass in Cocibolca.

Neither the Chinese franchisee nor any other human force has the power to guarantee 100% protection. Law 217 determines that obligatorily, on the principle of precaution, the project shouldn’t be built.

To go forward despite these considerations would mark the end of our hopes for a national development strategy that takes rational advantage of Nicaragua’s most valuable environmental asset, our Great Lake Cocibolca.

In view of the fact that we can’t gamble away the country’s future to foreign interests – hoping against hope that maybe a disaster won’t happen – we must overturn Law 840, the law that makes such a risk possible.  This is the way to avoid the black tide that could someday engulf the Lake of Nicaragua.


The author is a member of the Nicaraguan Academy of Science