Curaçao's crude legacy
A lake of asphalt and toxic fumes bedevil Curaçao. But who will pay to clean it up?
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“We think Shell headquarters should take responsibility for the problems they have caused in some developing countries,” says Albert ten Kate, a campaigner at the group’s Amsterdam headquarters. “Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much progress.”Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Narain and Raveneau, who have been fighting the refinery since 1989, put overall cleanup costs at $1 billion, a sum far beyond the island’s means.
Shell, based in The Hague, denies responsibility. “As Shell has not had a presence on the island of Curaçao for 23 years and transferred ownership at this time,” a company spokeswoman says, “all liabilities regarding environmental issues have been transferred to the current owner.”
Over the past decade, multinational corporations have come under increasing pressure to assume responsibility for past environmental contamination of sites in the developing world. Chevron is fighting a court case in Ecuador, where it faces potential damages of up to $16.3 billion for the alleged dumping of billions of tons of toxic waste. Friends of the Earth wants Shell to set aside at least $10 billion to clean up oil contamination in Nigeria.
The most pressing problem is the result of current operations: the plume of airborne pollutants. Residents downwind say it triggers headaches, nausea, itchy skin, and respiratory problems. Norbert George, president of the Humane Care Foundation in Willemstad, estimates that more than 12 percent of the island’s population has suffered health damage. Residents say the emissions rapidly corrode metal objects and sometimes stain laundry as it dries on clotheslines.
“In its present condition, [the refinery] poses a health threat to the community and does not agree with the tourism industry of the island,” says the island’s most prominent entrepreneur, Jacob Gelt Dekker, a multimillionaire philanthropist and luxury resort owner. “Local politicians have been unable to make decisions, mostly due to conflicts of interest. Many of them have ties to the plant.”
Humphrey Davelaar, Curaçao’s health commissioner and head of the island’s primary health laboratory, did not respond to requests for comment and official statistics on emissions and health effects. PDVSA’s Caracas-based communications director could not be reached.
A lack of concrete information makes it difficult to assess the refinery’s impact on the marine environment, says Rolf Bak of the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. “It’s certain that the reefs downstream of the harbor entrance are degraded,” he says. It’s hard to say how much is from the refinery and how much from shipping or elsewhere, he adds.
PDVSA has made improvements, but has been sued in local courts for alleged continued failures to comply with pollution permits. The company has argued that if it were required to comply, it would be forced to close the plant.
“The courts have said they must comply with the permit, but the permit is vague, so the judges can’t tell you a thing,” says activist Narain, who ultimately faults the island’s leadership. “If you don’t have a government that wants to protect the people and really thinks about sustainable development, nothing will happen.”