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Curaçao's crude legacy

A lake of asphalt and toxic fumes bedevil Curaçao. But who will pay to clean it up?

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 28, 2008

Friends of the Earth activists Lloyd Narain and Yvette Raveneau have campaigned against World War I-era oil refinery's pollution for 20 years.

Colin Woodard


WILLEMSTAD, Netherlands Antilles

It’s a scene out of Dante’s “Inferno”: a lake of asphalt and other hydrocarbons stretched out across what was once an estuary of the Caribbean Sea.

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From its oil-blackened banks, the fumes are overwhelming, and dead birds can be seen scattered on the gooey surface that, after a heavy rain, can be mistaken for water. The oil refinery that created this lake dominates the skyline, flames pouring from its flare stacks.

“Sometimes dogs and other animals get stuck as well,” environmental activist Yvette Raveneau says of the 200-acre artificial lake that lies on the outskirts of Willemstad on the island of Curaçao.

The lake is just a small part of the environmental legacy of the Isla oil refinery, built in 1918 on this, the largest of the Netherlands’ Caribbean island dependencies. Smokestack emissions still fall on nearby neighborhoods and are blamed for a wide range of health problems. Oil leaks have contaminated the harbor and coral reefs in the nearby sea.

“I am one of the enemies of this lake, but it is not the highest priority,” says Ms. Raveneau, a chemistry teacher and president of Friends of the Earth’s Curaçao branch. Ten years ago, she led the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix on a tour of this contaminated corner of her kingdom.

“It’s well known that the emissions are much too high, they are hazardous to the health, and yet they go on and on, year after year.”

The refinery blessed and cursed this island of 150,000. Built by Royal Dutch Shell, it provided thousands of jobs and an industrial base for this arid, out-of-the way island and literally fueled the allied invasion of North Africa in World War II. It still employs 900 people and is one of Curaçao’s largest foreign-exchange earners.

“The refinery is a given on the island, and it’s hard to say we would do better without it,” says Don Werdekker, director of the Cura­­­­­çao Hospitality and Tourism As­­­sociation. “Some tourist destinations are highly dependent on that one sector, and you can see today how that makes them vulnerable in a crisis. Provided the refinery operates according to the best possible environmental guidelines, we welcome it,” he says.

But Dutch and local authorities never imposed the same environmental regulations they had at home, removing an incentive to invest in pollution-abatement technology. By 1985 the Isla refinery was so antiquated that Shell, Holland’s lar­gest corporation, declared it obsolete. But instead of tearing it down at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, Shell got the island government to buy it for $1 and to absolve the conglomerate of any future environmental and health liabilities.

Shell knew that it was getting a sweetheart deal, says Raveneau’s colleague Lloyd Narain, and the island government was naive. “We islanders knew nothing about the refinery – it had been an island within the island – and the government didn’t even have a specialist on their side,” he says. Island leaders panicked when Shell pulled out. They feared social unrest if the plant closed.

Many on the island now think Shell has at least a moral responsibility to clean up past contamination at the refinery, which is currently operated by the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA on a long-term lease. The international office of Friends of the Earth agrees, and last year held a worldwide campaign to urge Shell to clean up Isla and eight other problematic sites.